A colorized, speed-corrected video of Paris in the 1890s

This is a fascinating video, consisting of a series of remastered prints from the early days of film, with scenes of downtown Paris from sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s. The speed was adjusted to make it more life-like, and the film was also colorized. Ambient sounds were added later. The films were taken by the Lumiere brothers, who more or less invented modern cinema — you can see the two of them at the end of the second-from-last clip, where they jump onto a moving sidewalk that was built for the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900.

A bizarre mansion built by the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune

Sarah Lockwood Winchester was the widow of William Wirt Winchester, who died in 1881 of tuberculosis and left Sarah his fortune, which at the time amounted to $20 million (about $450 million in today’s dollars), since he was a member of the family that invented the Winchester repeating rifle. She moved to the Santa Clara Valley and started building a house, one that she kept adding onto until her death in 1922, which has come to be known as the Winchester Mystery House. By the time she died, the building covered more than 24,000 square feet.

The main mystery is why she built the house the way she did — not only did it have 160 rooms (including 40 bedrooms) and a number of towers and other features, but it also contained a number of bizarre rooms and features that seemed to have no purpose. There’s a staircase that ends at a ceiling, a closet that is only an inch deep, a “door to nowhere” that opens into empty space, and a magnificent stained glass window that is behind a wall, and so doesn’t receive any light with which to illuminate it (the house has about 10,000 other panes of stained glass to make up for it though).

Ancient physical representations of 3D information

This was something I had absolutely no knowledge of until I read about this at Jason Kottke’s blog — which is a must-read by the way. Many ancient cultures used a variety of methods to create 3D physical representations of information they needed to know, like the one below, which is a visualization of ocean wave patterns created by Micronesians in the Marshall Islands. They would apparently pass these on from person to person and memorize them before heading out to sea in their boats. Straight sticks represent regular currents, curved sticks are ocean swells and seashells are islands.

Kottke also writes about how the Yakima tribe of native Americans used strings of hemp tied into balls as a kind of visual or tactile journal of their lives. So every major event was represented by a knot, a bead, or a shell. It was called an Ititamat or a counting-the-days ball or just a “time ball,” and it allowed the owner to recall specific events and times merely by touching and unwinding it. Those who lived long lives might have several, and when they passed away, the balls were buried with them.

/via kottke.org

Meet Walter Pitts, the Homeless Genius Who Revolutionized Artificial Intelligence

Pitts stayed hidden until the library closed for the evening. Alone, he wandered through the stacks of books until he came across Principia Mathematica, a three-volume tome written by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead, which attempted to reduce all of mathematics to pure logic. For three days he remained in the library until he had read each volume cover to cover—nearly 2,000 pages in all—and had identified several mistakes. The boy drafted a letter to Russell detailing the errors. Not only did Russell write back, he was so impressed that he invited Pitts to study with him as a graduate student at Cambridge University. Pitts couldn’t oblige him, though—he was only 12 years old

Source: The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic

This is a fascinating story about someone I had never heard of before. Walter Pitts was born to a working-class family in Detroit, and had taught himself Greek, Latin and high-level mathematics by the age of 12. After getting the letter from Bertrand Russell, he eventually ran away to Chicago and found odd jobs at the university, until he met Warren McCulloch, a 42-year-old, chain-smoking philosopher poet who “lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before 4 a.m.” At the time, Walter was just 18, a shy young man with a squat, duck-like face.

McCulloch was trying to come up with a mental model of the brain, and a paper by Alan Turing convinced him the brain was a computing machine, and the functioning of the neurons could be modeled just like the Principia modeled complex mathematics. He and Pitts started working on it, and Pitts moved into McCulloch’s house in a suburb of Chicago. Together, they described what would become an entire field of mathematics and computing called “neural networks.”

Soon, Pitts had also impressed Norbert Weiner, one of the leading scientists at MIT and the father of cybernetics. Weiner was so taken with Pitts’ ability that he promised him a PhD in mathematics, despite the fact that he had never graduated from high school. He soon started collaborating with John von Neumann, a leading Princeton mathematician and physicist and one of the inventors of the first “stored program binary computing machine.” Von Neumann used Pitts’s theories about a mathematical model of memory to design the modern computer. McCulloch described Pitts this way:

He has become an excellent dye chemist, a good mammalogist, he knows the sedges, mushrooms and the birds of New England. He knows neuroanatomy and neurophysiology from their original sources in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German for he learns any language he needs as soon as he needs it. Things like electrical circuit theory and the practical soldering in of power, lighting, and radio circuits he does himself.”

McCulloch made it to MIT as well, and he and Pitts started working together again. But Wiener’s wife disapproved of the late-night parties at McCulloch’s farm in Connecticut, where whiskey flowed and everyone went skinny-dipping. She told Wiener that several of McCulloch’s friends had tried to seduce their daughter Barbara, who was staying at McCulloch’s house in Chicago. Wiener cut off Pitts, and Pitts sank into depression. He started drinking heavily, never finished his PhD and eventually set fire to his notes and papers. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1969, at the age of 53.

Yes, there’s an e-sport called “Fantasy Birding

I love it when I find out about something that I literally had no idea even existed, and “fantasy birding” definitely falls into that category. What is it? Well, it’s basically competitive bird-watching, but instead of having to go out and actually find the exotic birds yourself, you bet on whether someone is going to do that for a specific bird in a specific region. Finds are tracked using a public-domain database called eBird, which is run by Cornell University and allows anyone to track their bird sightings. The fantasy part was the creation of Matt Smith, who tells Deadspin:

“Fantasy birding is basically the offspring of three unrelated obsessions of mine. One is obviously birding, which I fell into pretty hard as a kid in Mississippi. The second is sports, baseball in particular, which always turned me on because of all the numbers. And the third is making things for the web.”

Players select single locations on a map each day, and they get credit for a bird if a real-life birder spots that species within a 10-kilometer radius on that day. The fantasy birding league has already drawn 358 players, according to the Deadspin piece, and the user with the handle MaxBirding was in first place as of March, having spotted 549 species, including 50 rarities, since the competition began in January. My favorite comment from Matt Smith comes at the end, where he says:

“It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the thing you’re doing is. If enough people do it together, it’ll be a good time.”