Category Archives: Physical + Digital

Data mapping for the ancient world

Dr. David Kilcullen makes really useful maps.

He and his team have worked with communities around the world, using Google Maps to help improve lives. One map made by a group of Libyan schoolgirls pinpointed local sniper positions to help their classmates navigate a route to school.

Last week’s Fast Company article about Kilcullen really intrigued me.

At its core it’s about how simple, free, online tools can be used to bring disparate data sets together and make them available for everyone to access. And it’s about making that data visual, enabling us to see patterns that are hard to see when looking at a list or a block of text.

These core ideas can be applied to any subject matter.

So last night I made the map at the start of this post – a map showing the birthplaces of the Later Roman emperors from Diocletian (r.284-305) to Valentinian III (r.424-455).

Google Maps launched in February 2005, while I was studying for my Masters in Ancient History. I wish I had realised its potential back then!

Maps like this would have been incredibly helpful – this one shows very clearly that there was a concentration of emperors’ births in the central European provinces, especially in the region that is now Serbia. That’s largely because in this period most emperors were either raised up by the army or came from military families, and this region was home to some of the strongest army units of the age.

And note that only one emperor in that entire period was born in Rome.

There’s a cool Roman mapping project called Orbis, which calculates how fast and at what cost one could travel around the Roman Empire. Example: travelling from Verulamium (now St Albans, my home town) to Rome in July in c.200AD would take 51 days and cost 1,553 denarii per passenger.

And I can think of about 20 other maps that would be super-useful for Roman history students of today, and for which the data is available on Wikipedia:

  • Roman provincial capitals
  • Emperors’ accession places
  • Emperors’ death places
  • Emperors’ burial places
  • Empresses’ birth / death / burial places
  • The borders of the Empire
  • Imperial mints
  • Roman aqueducts
  • Imperially-named cities
  • Provinces, dioceses, praetorian prefectures
  • Finds of Chinese / Russian / etc coinage within the Empire
  • Battles
  • Triumphal arches
  • Ancient monuments in Rome / Constantinople / etc
  • Roman villas in England / etc
  • Public baths
  • Canals
  • Dams and reservoirs
  • Victory monuments
  • Domes

Some of these maps exist in paper form, but they cost an awful lot to produce and are usually buried in books that are either expensive, inaccessible, or both. I think Wikipedia has shown that there’s no need for basic knowledge like this to be hidden, and that collaboration can open up arcane information. And data visualisation is revealing patterns that would otherwise not be apparent.

Using tools like Google Maps to solve these problems would be helpful, close to free, and (if created collaboratively) should improve over time + stay up to date with the latest finds.

Nor is any of this restricted to Roman history. Exactly the same approach would work for other historical periods, in other places – all you need is the data and people willing to make the maps.

You could also make particularly good use of the annotation functions in Google Maps – each pin can be tagged with links to relevant info and links to articles / photos / video / other maps.

I’m thinking of putting together a simple site for a handful of Roman maps, in order to gauge the level of interest. This could be a fun project. Give me a shout (details on the About page) if you want to get involved.

 

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If you liked this, read Geo-located email.

Follow @toddmgreen

Media Death

I once wrote questions for a gameshow round called ‘Dead or Alive?’.

The catchphrase was “Is he dead?”, and it was great fun.

You can play now. Are these people Dead or Alive?

Kirk Douglas, hero of Spartacus

Clive Dunn, sayer of “Don’t panic Mr. Mainwaring!” in Dad’s Army

Oscar Niemayer, Brazilian architect

Billy Graham, evangelical preacher

Zsa Zsa Gabor, actress and sexy lady

Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull

… Answers at the bottom of the page.

I was quite shocked to discover that some people I had thought were dead were still alive and (at least metaphorically) kicking. Mikhael Gorbachev played this trick on me the other day.

LOL @ u

When someone old and famous doesn’t appear in the media for a long time, I presume they must be dead.

That means that they only exist in the media (media = traditional press + general public’s tweets, blog posts, etc). Their very existence is media-ted (haha!) by and through the media.

So when the media ignores a celebrity, the celebrity suffers ‘Media Death’.

It would be interesting to track the onset of Media Death. Perhaps, using web and social media data, it might be possible to diagnose it. If the celebrity has a savvy publicist, perhaps they could delay its effects. Or at least offer some palliative care in the form of some local newspaper articles.

For some ageing celebrities, though, Media Death must be a welcome respite. Maybe there will soon be a market for a kind of anti-publicist, who can administer a euthanasic coup de grace to celebrities wishing to retire from their media lives.

All six of the people listed above are still alive – Kirk Douglas, Clive DunnOscar Niemayer, Billy Graham, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Jake LaMotta.

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Thanks to The Death List for most of the tips, both now and back in 2008 when we made the show.

Video: Montreal snow walk

Everyday experiences are shared and aggrandised – on Facebook and Twitter, ‘The best thing ever’ and ‘OMG’ moments abound.

In that context it makes sense to find new ways of representing our personal experiences so that others can share them, and to explore the means by which internal experiences can be externalised.

This video is a single shot, 4-minute video of a walk through the snow in Montreal. The soundtrack – Sufjan Stevens’s All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands – is the song that was running through my mind at the time. Very little happens (though it finishes with a nice shot starting around 03:48), but that’s the point – it’s a way of externalising an internal experience.

It’s also got a pretty neat dreamy style, thanks to slowing down the video to 75% speed (and to YouTube’s stabilisation skills – to some extent it was unintended!).

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If you liked this, you should also read A time machine for interests and A personal on this day.

 

A personal On This Day

My boss’s wife posts photos of their (super-cute) son on Facebook almost every day. When he grows up he’s going to be able to look back at pretty detailed record of his childhood.

Google recently released a neat video about a father who emails his daughter every day from the day she was born:

I’ve been thinking about how much of my life is being recorded in one way or another, and how I might be able to look back on it in the future.

The record is comparatively incomplete for the first 15 years or so, but over the past decade and a bit (since I got my first email account aged 15) more and more material is being recorded – mostly, of course, online.

It’s pretty straightforward to look back in time at grand historical events. The BBC’s On This Day has been going for a long while (though it doesn’t seem to have been updated since 2005). Wikipedia has a page for each day of the year too – here’s today’s.

Keeping track of what you were doing personally on a particular day in the past is much harder. But it will probably get easier in time, and the results could be rather interesting.

One way of doing it might be to create a personal version of On This Day.

Each day you would receive an email summarising what were doing on that date in previous years.

Information could be drawn from emails, your calendar, Facebook, Twitter, SMS records, photos, Spotify, YouTube, and your browser history. There are a whole bunch of services that store the digital ‘artefacts’ we create (emails, Fb posts, tweets etc) – and of course those artefacts all time-stamped.

The content of the email would be curated according to your recent activity on those services. For example, if on 9 December 2010 you emailed 50 people, but since then you had only emailed five of them on a regular basis, perhaps the content relating to those five people would be of most interest to you in the email you received today, on 9 December 2011.

Obviously there would be privacy issues a-go-go.

But as we create more and more artefacts about ourselves, and since the digital artefacts we create will likely outlast us, there’s going to be a lot of historical information about each and every one of us available to look back on.

I think that the knowledge of the existence of that information will mean that we’ll start to see ourselves as objects of historical interest.

Those digital artefacts are like the fragments of the past that are collected together in museums, illuminating a particular historical period.

Finding a way of accessing, understanding and examining them – the fragments of our own personal history – is definitely a problem worth solving.

Update: this product already exists! Check out timehop.com, who thought this up a year or so before I did!

 

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If you liked this post, you might want to read this: A time machine for interests

Technology and magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that

There are already many technologies that seem like magic to us. “Magical” was the exact word used by a colleague’s wife when he showed her Blippar, an app that triggers an augmented reality ad on your phone when you points it camera at the advertiser’s logo.

She couldn’t believe that something physical – like the label on a jar of Marmite – could cause something to happen digitally on my colleague’s phone. She actually accused him of playing a trick!

But the connection between physical things and the digital world is, I think, going to become stronger and more obvious over the next few years.

There are two reasons for this.

1. Intermediary devices (like phones) are linking physical things to the internet

Blippar is one example; another is Google Goggles, which enables a photo of anything you see to trigger a Google image search. Both provide a bridge between physical things and the internet.

2. New physical things are being created that use an internet connection to do useful or interesting things

This has been described as the internet of/with things. For example, a wristband that tracks your physical activity and sleep patterns, and stores the data online so that you can monitor and learn from it. Or, more simply, a little gizmo that sits in your pot plant and sends you a message when the soil needs watering.

When objects are connected to the internet, they are also connected to one another.

I suspect that this will mean a change in the way we see the physical world.

The things we see around us will become increasingly networked, and less a set of discrete objects that exist in isolation.

The network that is growing around us seamlessly connects the physical world with the digital world. The connections between the two will become more commonplace, and there may well be a point at which we expect those connections to exist and place less value on certain ‘dumb’ objects.

I hope that doesn’t take too much of the magic out of things.

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Thanks to Paul Skeldon (and his wife!) for the story about Blippar.