information: theory and practice

The other day i got a reblog from a software developer i know. I guess we share an interest in using social statistics for web marketing. What he posted was from an on-line music developer, a blog  about mapping music sales on a state by state basis. Since everyone in the country actually likes Rhianna best, the guy who put the map together made an algorithm for determining the most “distinctive” artist that a state likes. I noticed that Arkansas, which is down South, white and dirt poor was represented by “Wiz Khalifa,” a rapper who, at least at one point in his career, talked pretty much exclusively about how rich he is. He is only the 15th most favorite artist in Arkansas, but they still like him there disproportionately in comparison to other states. He is also the only rapper they like even a little bit. I find this curious.Image

It reminds me of a natural phenomena of perception (or misapprehension) that leads to the development of prejudices. Only one in ten thousand Iraqis might be terrorists, but people read the newspapers and note where the bombings take place. They don’t read about as many acts of terror perpetrated by Americans; so in American minds all Iraqis become suspected terrorists.

Looking at that music map you might think there are a lot of gangbangers in Arkansas. It’s more accurate to say, when taking into account the statistical method used, that the people down there are getting to be a little bit more open to rappers of late; and also, maybe that they’re worried about money, just like poor people of color in the cities up North are, just like poor people are everywhere. But how often when we read a published report, do we take into account the filtering that the raw data has been put through by someone trying to make a point? Image see:

The same day, before settling down to my current research project, while searching for a shop, some shop, any shop that sells yoga equipment and is nearby, i stumbled on a link to a map of New York City street crime. [] So, being in a social statistics state of mind, i clicked on it; it was precinct by precinct- there are about 100 police precincts in the city. And,interestingly the lowest crime rate was right here where we live: in Spuyten Duyvil there were only 161 crimes last year per 100,00 people. This, i admit, made me feel downright and inordinately proud. After all i had contributed personally to these statistics by not being caught committing any crimes. The highest crime rate was in Central Park, which has it’s own precinct, and obviously a lot of crime, but where only 82 people actually live. Who even knew that people actually and officially live in Central Park? It got me to wondering: who could those people be? But instead of pursuing that angle, I focused my attention on finding the next highest crime district. It turned out to be just down the road from our good safe and sound neighborhood, in Precinct 41. That’s the Longwood area in the South Bronx, where they have 4.2 times more crime per populace than we do here in Spuyten. Image

Next, (and by this point I’m kind of spinning my wheels) I followed a link to the Police Chief there, and found that his district also includes North Brother Island, which, with zero population and zero crime, represented a New York City anomaly that interested me even more than finding out who lives in Central Park. I knew then, for a fact, that i was wasting time, but i looked up North Brother Island.

There are two Brother Islands, it seems, North and South, lying out in the East River between Manhattan and the Bronx. Curiously no bridge was ever built to access them; they can be reached by boat only. South is just a rock, but the North Brother is a few acres wide, and seems at one time to have had a decent population. There is, appropriate to its isolation, the wreck of what was once NYC’s principal tuberculosis hospital. Hospital workers once lived there; and there was housing for New York University and the Juilliard School of music students; both those institutions lie just across the river.

ImageThe Juilliard School as it was

Famously, Typhoid Mary had been exiled there. She was a cook who carried the typhoid virus. She never got sick herself, though people who ate at any house or restaurant she worked in were risking their lives. Finding the source of an epidemic that was sweeping late 19th century New York necessitated a major investigation, the first of its kind ever undertaken. As reported by the tabloids, the story captured America’s- and the world’s- imagination. But Mary, when at last discovered as the disease’s carrier, could in no way be construed a criminal; she just had to be kept away from people, in quarantine. She fought the City Board of Health’s ruling, promising never to cook for others again; but at the next typhoid breakout- it’s a terrible disease- she was again discovered by medical investigators to be at the epicenter, working the grill in a little greasy spoon restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, spreading death. Like Napoleon she was banished a second time. There have been a couple of recent works written about her. Image

I wanted to see the cabin she lived in, and did an on-line search. I found that North Brother Island is famous as an urban wasteland. In the 1960’s, with the more or less complete triumph of medical science over tuberculosis, the hospital there was closed and abandoned. The island was evacuated. Photographers have occasionally gotten permission from the Parks Department to come in and record the desolation. You need permission to go there, it’s a dangerous place, with collapsed roofs and disintegrating floors, sinkholes and lots of (possibly disease-carrying) rats. One of the pictures of the place that i found on line in particular caught my imagination. It shows the ruins of the hospital library; it was taken by a photographer from the London Daily Mail (a tabloid) a few years ago. They’d dredged up the old Typhoid Mary story, just as the SARS panic (which had been selling newspapers like hot cakes) was dying down a bit.


Eventually, i got back to my own research; just now I’m studying the letters of the great old Sanskrit scholar, Max Müller, to find out why he made a singularly crazy pronouncement late in his academically pristine life relating to Jesus’ alleged sojourn in India. He may have set back the arrival of the New Age by a few decades, and for what was probably a political reason. An important unpublished letter from the Marquess of Salisbury to Müller is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. It might be a key. I wondered how I could get a look at it. It could prove my theory, and that would make for an interesting book, or at least a decent dinner party story.

ImageMax Muller on a stamp; The Earl of Pembroke at the Proscholium entrance to the Bodleian; The Marquess Salisbury at sea with the issue of free education

When Beth came home that night from her work in the library, upset as usual at the disorganization she’s encountering there. I showed the picture of the North Brother Island hospital library to her. I think it’s beautiful, and I thought it might make her smile.


Detail of the picture i showed Beth

©ian ference/barcroft media

She was interested, and surprised; she told me her sister had spent some of her childhood out on North Brother, before Beth herself had been born, while their father finished up his medical studies at NYU. These were her sister Marsha’s kindergarten years, and Marsha and a little girlfriend had had Mary’s cottage for their haunted house. Beth and i talked over dinner about the Island and about her family’s sojourn there; and then (as is customary in many families and relationships), we shared our own workday reports. I went into some detail- she needs to be reassured now and then that I’m actually working-and responding to my concern over the Salisbury-Müller letter, Beth suggested I could ask her niece, an Oxford graduate and poet who lives near the Bodleian to take a look; or i could even talk with her sister, who’d be going over to England for a visit in a few weeks. I told her it sounded possible; Next time Marsha called I’d broach the subject. If i were around. I wondered if i really want to learn what’s written in that letter. Sometimes, you know, speculation is more fulfilling than answers. Next morning, (and this is the point of this story) Jen, Beth’s niece emailed Beth a poem entitled “North Brother Island“.

Typhoid Mary lived there

             but my mother called it Paradise. . .

-from an unpublished poem by Jennifer McGowan, 2014

archeonix 3/13/14