Jun 082018

On this date in 1887, Herman Hollerith applied for US patent #395,781 for the ‘Art of Compiling Statistics’ which described his punched card calculator. The full patent application (with diagrams) can be found here: https://www.census.gov/history/pdf/hollerith_patent_01081889.pdf  The patent was granted on January 8, 1889. Hollerith’s inventions in the field of computing cannot be overstated, even though previous inventors had come up with the idea of using punched cards to store and relay data. Joseph Marie Jacquard is famous for developing the Jacquard loom which used a chain of punched cards to direct the raising and lowering of specific warp threads and the selection of shuttles for the weft, to automate the weaving of predetermined patterns.

Charles Babbage theorized on how punched cards could be used to input data into his “difference machines” and, as such, is usually called the “father of digital computing” or some such. But Hollerith actually built digital (mechanical) computing machines that worked, and his company was one of four that was eventually merged into what is now IBM.

Herman Hollerith was the youngest son of German immigrant Johann Georg Franz Hollerith and his second wife Franziska (nee Brunn) from Großfischlingen (near Neustadt an der Weinstraße). His father had been a Lutheran pastor and lecturer in classical languages, but he was imprisoned during the 1848 revolutions, and subsequently migrated to Buffalo, New York, where Herman was born and spent his early childhood, mostly getting into trouble in school. Herman was a “leap child” – born on February 29th, 1860, but that fact is unlikely to have been the reason for his rebelliousness as a boy. He entered the City College of New York in 1875 which at that time was somewhat equivalent to senior high school, and then transferred to Columbia University School of Mines where he graduated with an “Engineer of Mines” degree in 1879 at age 19. In 1882 Hollerith joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he taught mechanical engineering and conducted his first experiments with punched cards. He eventually moved to Washington, D.C., living in Georgetown, with a home on 29th Street and a business building at 31st Street and the C&O Canal, where today there is a commemorative plaque installed by IBM.

At the urging of John Shaw Billings, Hollerith developed a mechanism using electrical connections to increment a counter, recording information. A key idea was that a datum (NB – singular of “data”: ONE piece of information) could be recorded by the presence or absence of a hole at a specific location on a card. For example, if a specific hole location indicates marital status, then a hole there can indicate married while not having a hole indicates single.

Hollerith worked out a system whereby data located in specified rows and columns, could be counted or sorted electromechanically. He submitted his patent description of this system as “An Electric Tabulating System” (1889) to Columbia University as his doctoral thesis:

The herein-described method of compiling statistics, which consists in recording separate statistical items pertaining to the individual by holes or combinations of holes punched in sheets of electrically non-conducting material, and bearing a specific relation to each other and to a standard, and then counting or tallying such statistical items separately or in combination by means of mechanical counters operated by electro-magnets the circuits through which are controlled by the perforated sheets, substantially as and for the purpose set forth.

Hollerith had left teaching and begun working for the United States Census Bureau when he filed his first patent application, on September 23rd, 1884. Hollerith initially did business under his own name, as The Hollerith Electric Tabulating System, specializing in punched card data processing equipment. He provided tabulators and other machines under contract for the Census Office, which used them for the 1890 census. The net effect of the many changes from the 1880 census: the larger population, the data items to be collected, the Census Bureau headcount, the scheduled publications, and the use of Hollerith’s electromechanical tabulators, was to reduce the time required to process the census from eight years for the 1880 census to six years for the 1890 census.

In 1896 Hollerith founded the Tabulating Machine Company (in 1905 renamed The Tabulating Machine Company). Many major census bureaus around the world leased his equipment and purchased his cards, as did major insurance companies. Hollerith’s machines were used for censuses in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, Austria, Canada, France, Norway, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, and again in the 1900 census.

He invented the first automatic card-feed mechanism and the first keypunch. The 1890 Tabulator was hardwired to operate on 1890 Census cards. A control panel in his 1906 Type I Tabulator simplified rewiring for different jobs. The 1920s removable control panel supported prewiring and near-instant job changing. These inventions were among the foundations of the data processing industry and Hollerith’s punched cards (later used for electronic computer input/output) continued in use for almost a century.

In 1911 four corporations, including Hollerith’s firm, were amalgamated to form a fifth company, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR). Under the presidency of Thomas J. Watson, CTR was renamed International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) in 1924. Hollerith cards were named after Herman Hollerith (they eventually reached 128 columns width), as were Hollerith constants (a string constant declaration in some computer programming languages, sometimes called a Hollerith string).

IBM’s supercomputer, Watson (named for the founding president, of course), has famously been programmed to do numerous things that humans can do, such as play chess and compete in game shows, as part of a continuing investigation into Artificial Intelligence (AI). National Geographic in 2014 reported on efforts to program Watson to be able to create recipes — https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2014/06/19/can-a-computer-cook/ First, the programmers input a list of potential ingredients, which by itself was able to generate 1018 (1 quintillion) combinations. Way too many choices for a human to sift through, but not for Watson. Programmers then input data including 35,000 recipes, which provided basic information about food composition and flavor pairings, along with the molecular chemistry of over a thousand different flavor ingredients—everything from black tea to Bantu beer. They also input data on psychophysics, which quantifies the tastes and flavor sensations that people tend to like. Watson’s mission impossible, based on these data, was to invent recipes that are both delicious and unconventional. Watson has come up with bear meat with saffron and sandalwood, avocado Napoleons, and kebabs featuring pork, chicken, strawberries, shitake mushrooms, pineapple, apples, curry, green onions, carrots, lemon, lime, and mint. There’s also Creole Shrimp-Lamb Dumpling, Baltic Apple Pie, Austrian Chocolate Burrito, and Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, (a blend of white wine, butternut squash, rice vinegar, dates, cilantro, tamarind, cardamom, and turmeric). Here’s Austrian Chocolate Burrito:

Watson’s Austrian Chocolate Burrito


Lean ground beef: 1 lb. browned and drained of excess fat
Zest of one orange
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Dark chocolate: 2 ounces, (70% cocoa solids or higher), very finely chopped
Apricot puree: ½ cup
Vanilla bean: ½ bean, split and scraped
Edamame : 1 ½ cups, shelled
Fine sea salt: as needed
Flour tortillas : 6
Vegetable shortening : melted, as needed
Edam cheese: 1 cup, grated
Queso fresco : ½ cup, crumbled


Brown the beef and drain. While still warm, stir in the orange zest, cinnamon, and 1oz chocolate. Season with salt, and reserve for assembly.

In a saucepan, combine the apricot purée and vanilla and slowly reduce over medium heat to roughly ¼ cup. Remove from heat and stir in ½ oz chocolate. Cool and reserve for assembly.

Next, blanch the edamame in boiling salted water for about 1 minute, then drain and shock in ice water. Transfer the edamame to a food processor and pulse to achieve a rough textured paste. Season with salt and reserve for assembly.

Watson does not indicate how the assembly process takes place, but it ought to be simple enough to divide the fillings into six, layer them on tortillas and roll them up. It does not look horrid – not unlike a Mexican mole in fact (minus the hot peppers). Give it a try and let me know.

Apr 252018

Today is sometimes called World DNA Day although it is not an official holiday for any organization. It commemorates the day in 1953 when James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and colleagues published papers in the journal Nature on the structure of DNA. Furthermore, on this date in 2003 (the 50th anniversary) it was declared that the Human Genome Project was very close to complete, and “the remaining tiny gaps” were considered too costly to fill. I have often used the first paper on DNA published by Crick and Watson (originally 2 handwritten pages), as a caution to my students that a paper does not have to be long to be good. Of course, Crick and Watson were not anthropology undergraduates. Some scientific or mathematical discoveries can be put on paper briefly, because that is one of the hallmarks of science itself – reducing complex datasets to elegant and simple equations or formulae. At one level, the structure of DNA is simple to understand; it is the ramifications of that structure that are so wondrously complex and fascinating.

With an “alphabet” of just four nucleotides that form pairs at the center of the DNA molecule – cytosine [C], guanine [G], adenine [A] and thymine [T] – we can “spell” the genetic code of every living thing on earth. The implications of this fact completely revolutionized biology (and allied sciences) in my lifetime. DNA analysis changed the way we think about species and evolution for starters.  With DNA analysis we can plot the exact lines of the development of species and the relationships between them. Both old taxonomic systems of species and the lines of their evolution have been upended by the introduction of DNA analysis. The broad strokes remain the same, of course, but there has been an enormous amount of shuffling around inside those broad strokes. DNA has also confirmed what anthropologists have known for a long time: race is not a biological fact. Human biological variation exists on a continuum and, therefore, there are no biological markers – DNA or otherwise – for specific races. Race is a cultural, not a biological, classification system.

DNA analysis was as important an additional to the criminal forensic science toolkit as fingerprinting was 100 years ago. In fact, DNA matching is much more accurate that fingerprinting and has been used, not only to convict criminals, but also to free the wrongly convicted (including from death row). Analysis of DNA can be used to identify potential medical hazards for an individual, and some methods are available now for repairing DNA. Without doubt, the identification of the structure of the DNA molecule was the single biggest step forward in the biological sciences in the 20th century. What was known very well by the scientific community, but less well known by the general public, is that Crick and Watson should be given a great deal of credit, but by no means all of it, for the discovery.

Isaac Newton was not being very original when he said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants,” but he was displaying suitable humility. James Watson was not quite so humble when he wrote The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, published in 1968. When I read it, shortly after it was published, I was struck by Watson’s arrogance, not to mention his obvious sexism. Since then I have noted that I was far from alone in that opinion. As Watson notes, repeatedly, the race was on in the early 1950s to be the first to publish an accurate account of the structure of DNA, and this was not a particular priority for Crick. The race to be the first in certain scientific fields can be intense because the rewards, in terms of money, prestige, and influence, are so high. Great minds can disagree as to whether competition is the best road to discovery. It is certainly the norm in Western science, deriving from cultures that seem to thrive on competition.

In The Double Helix, Watson acknowledges, but downplays, the contributions of others in the search for the structure of DNA, and occasionally makes egregious, and unwarranted, remarks, such as his comment that Rosalind Franklin, whose research was vital for Crick and Watson’s final discovery, was not quite attractive enough to be called “pretty.” What does that remotely have to do with anything? He never says anything about the appearance of male colleagues. I could say that Francis Crick has the appearance of a bad Spike Milligan impersonator, but you would not, on the basis of that remark, think I had keen insight into anything – scientific or otherwise.

The Nobel committee was, thankfully, more open minded than Watson in awarding the prize jointly to Crick, Watson, and Maurice Wilkins. Nobels may be shared by no more than three scientists, and they must be living at the time of the award. These conditions excluded Rosalind Franklin (who had died) and Raymond Gosling, her graduate assistant, whose X-ray diffraction imagery of the DNA molecule was fundamental to Crick and Watson’s breakthrough. Today’s anniversary celebration in this post is not of the original announcement of the discovery, which was made in the Eagle pub in Cambridge on 28th February, but of the publication in Nature of related papers by Crick and Watson, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, and others, acknowledging the need for collaborative effort to achieve significant results.

Understanding the structure of DNA has led to genetic engineering technologies in a variety of fields. One of the best-known and controversial applications of genetic engineering is the creation and use of genetically modified crops or genetically modified livestock to produce genetically modified food. Crops have been developed to increase production, increase tolerance to abiotic stresses, alter the composition of the food, or to produce novel products.

The first genetically modified crops to be grown commercially on a large scale provided protection from insect pests or tolerance to herbicides. Fungal and virus resistant crops have also being developed or are in development. This make the insect and weed management of crops easier and can therby increase crop yield. GM (genetically modified) crops that directly improve yield by accelerating growth or making the plant hardier (by improving salt, cold or drought tolerance) are also under development. In 2016, salmon were genetically modified with growth hormones to reach normal adult size much faster.

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) have been developed that modify the quality of produce by increasing the nutritional value or providing more industrially useful qualities or quantities.] The Amflora potato produces a more industrially useful blend of starches. Soybeans and canola have been genetically modified to produce healthier oils. The first commercialized GM food was a tomato that had delayed ripening, increasing its shelf life.

This site fascinates me, although its claims seem a bit far-fetched, and they could use a decent copy editor: https://thespoon.tech/personalizing-food-directed-by-your-dna/  The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), has just launched a three-year study into the personalized fabrication of smart food systems. The basic idea is to examine a person’s DNA, find any flaws in it, and then – via technology not yet invented – create foods that are optimal in restoring that person’s DNA to health. Imagine that you have a machine, perhaps rather like a refrigerator, that takes a blood sample, analyzes it, than manufactures foods for your next meal that are perfectly matched to your current genetic needs. This machine would be something like a 3-D printer, except that instead of making objects it would make foods. Sounds like something out of the Jetsons, I know, and I expect that the technology is still some way in the future despite the optimism of the writers.

There are 2 things that trouble me about this sci-fi scenario. First, I do not trust biochemical engineers to come up with the right food for me from a machine. Bioengineering does not have a great track record, and there are countless mistakes that have been made. Second, rather related to the first, I cannot imagine a machine-made food product more satisfying – nor healthier –  than the food I buy from markets and cook for myself. I may be unusual, but I do not believe I am unique in paying attention to my day-to-day appetites for finding the foods that are the best choices for my body at that moment. Surely everyone at one time or another has had the experience of getting sick, hankering after specific things (or nothing at all) and, it turns out, those foods are what the body needs in those circumstances to get better. I am well aware that this is not a trustworthy system by any means, but I believe we could do a lot better by uncovering natural physiological solutions to our dietary needs, than dreaming of a food-making machine.

Mar 042016


On this date in 1881 according to A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/arthur-conan-doyle/ ), Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes began their first adventure. Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet in 1886, and the story marks the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For verisimilitude Doyle gave some exact dates in the story, 4th March 1881, being one of them. The book’s title derives from a speech given by Holmes, to his friend and chronicler Watson on the nature of his work, in which he describes the story’s murder investigation as his “study in scarlet” — “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

The story, and its main characters, attracted little public interest when it first appeared. Only 11 complete copies of the magazine in which the story first appeared, Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, are known to exist now and they have considerable value. Although Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is one of only four full-length novels in the original canon. The novel was followed by The Sign of the Four, published in 1890. A Study in Scarlet was the first work of detective fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

I came to A Study in Scarlet in my mid teens, after I had read a number of the Holmes short stories. I won’t talk about the plot itself. You’ve either read it, in which case you know it, or you haven’t, in which case I won’t spoil it for you. When I first read it I was mystified by it for several reasons. For one, Holmes is initially described by Watson as a queer duck with very odd ideas. For example, he does not know anything about the motion of the earth and does not care to know:


My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

When I first read this I was dumbfounded for all manner of reasons, and still find it ludicrous. Yes, Doyle wants us to see Holmes as brilliant but quirky. However, this description of him makes no sense. You can’t forget things at will; the brain is not like an expandable storage unit that can be filled; and you cannot guess ahead of time what information might be useful to you even though your profession is highly specialized. Incredibly intelligent and creative scientists, for example, have been known to take inspiration from all manner of seemingly unrelated spheres such as art and foreign travel.


Second, I was perplexed when the story broke off from the main narrative of capturing a murderer and shifted, without warning, to Mormons in Utah. In fact I stopped reading at this point because I thought this was a new story, and only picked up the book again some time later because I was out of reading material at the time, and discovered that this digression was, in fact, essential to the plot even though at first it seemed irrelevant. Doyle did the same thing in The Valley of Fear, but by then I was prepared, and soldiered on even though I find these “digressions” tedious and pointless. They disrupt the flow of the narrative for me. They also show a lack of understanding of the United States in the 19th century and are rather preposterous. I don’t like narratives that need a lengthy back story for explanation. Admittedly the one in The Valley of Fear is more engaging than the one in A Study in Scarlet, but it is still very farfetched.


Finding a recipe for Holmes is a challenge because his eating habits are largely absent from the books. If Holmes is true to form, eating is of no interest to him. Doyle certainly shows little interest in describing food in any of his writings. So I have to invent something. As I mentioned in my post on Doyle, the Beeton in Beeton’s Christmas Annual where A Study in Scarlet first appeared, was cookbook author, Isabella Beeton’s, husband. So a Beeton recipe is suitable. I have chosen boiled chicken with oysters simply because it is suitably Victorian. There are many cookbooks available now masquerading as the Sherlock Holmes Cookbook, but they are no more than collections of period recipes with no connexion to the Holmes stories, so I’ll follow suit. Oysters were popular in sauces and dishes in the Victorian period, in part because they were cheap and readily available. The combination of poultry and oysters is delectable. I first came across this combination when I was living and working on the coast of North Carolina where they routinely cooked turkey with an oyster stuffing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Delightful.


Here’s Isabella Beeton’s recipe including some ever-charming notes. The twist here is that the bird is stuffed with fresh oysters, then stuffed into a large glass jar, which is immersed in boiling water to cook. In this way the bird does not come in contact with the water, and the cooking juices are preserved. Nowadays I would use a sealable boiling bag for the same effect.

SPACE FOR FOWLS.—We are no advocates for converting the domestic fowl into a cage-bird. We have known amateur fowl-keepers—worthy souls, who would butter the very barley they gave their pets, if they thought they would the more enjoy it—coop up a male bird and three or four hens in an ordinary egg-chest placed on its side, and with the front closely barred with iron hooping! This system will not do. Every animal, from man himself to the guinea-pig, must have what is vulgarly, but truly, known as “elbow-room;” and it must be self-evident how emphatically this rule applies to winged animals. It may be urged, in the case of domestic fowls, that from constant disuse, and from clipping and plucking, and other sorts of maltreatment, their wings can hardly be regarded as instruments of flight; we maintain, however, that you may pluck a fowl’s wing-joints as bare as a pumpkin, but you will not erase from his memory that he is a fowl, and that his proper sphere is the open air. If he likewise reflects that he is an ill-used fowl—a prison-bird—he will then come to the conclusion, that there is not the least use, under such circumstances, for his existence; and you must admit that the decision is only logical and natural.

BOILED FOWL, with Oysters.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 young fowl, 3 dozen oysters, the yolks of 2 eggs, 1/4 pint of cream.

Mode.—Truss a young fowl as for boiling; fill the inside with oysters which have been bearded and washed in their own liquor; secure the ends of the fowl, put it into a jar, and plunge the jar into a saucepan of boiling water. Keep it boiling for 1-1/2 hour, or rather longer; then take the gravy that has flowed from the oysters and fowl, of which there will be a good quantity; stir in the cream and yolks of eggs, add a few oysters scalded in their liquor; let the sauce get quite hot, but do not allow it to boil; pour some of it over the fowl, and the remainder send to table in a tureen. A blade of pounded mace added to the sauce, with the cream and eggs, will be found an improvement.

Time.—1-1/2 hour. Average cost, 4s. 6d.

Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.

Seasonable from September to April.

THE FOWL-HOUSE.—In building a fowl-house, take care that it be, if possible, built against a wall or fence that faces the south, and thus insure its inmates against many cold winds, driving rains, and sleets they will otherwise suffer. Let the floor of the house slope half an inch to the foot from back to front, so as to insure drainage; let it also be close, hard, and perfectly smooth; so that it may be cleanly swept out. A capital plan is to mix a few bushels of chalk and dry earth, spread it over the floor, and pay a paviour’s labourer a trifle to hammer it level with his rammer. The fowl-house should be seven feet high, and furnished with perches at least two feet apart. The perches must be level, and not one above the other, or unpleasant consequences may ensue to the undermost row. The perches should be ledged (not fixed—just dropped into sockets, that they may be easily taken out and cleaned) not lower than five feet from the ground, convenient slips of wood being driven into the wall, to render the ascent as easy as possible. The front of the fowl-house should be latticed, taking care that the interstices be not wide enough even to tempt a chick to crawl through. Nesting-boxes, containing soft hay, and fitted against the walls, so as to be easily reached by the perch-ladder, should be supplied. It will be as well to keep by you a few portable doors, so that you may hang one before the entrance to a nesting-box, when the hen goes in to sit. This will prevent other hens from intruding, a habit to which some are much addicted.