A most excellent time-wasting tool

That’s what Atlantic tech blogger Alexis Madrigal calls Google’s Books Ngram Viewer. Google has scanned about 10 percent of all the books ever published. Enter any word or phrase into the search box, and the viewer returns a graph of its frequency of appearance in books published over the last two centuries. Note that the searches are case sensitive, and you can compare the relative frequencies of up to four five different words or phrases, separating them by commas in the search box. Say, “Nova Scotia” and “Ontario,” for example:


Try it yourself, and please send me any interesting pairings you come up with.

Madrigal’s blog is always interesting, but today’s entries are exceptionally good. In addition to the Ngram Viewer, there’s a post on the history or weird homemade windmills that sprung up in Nebraska’s Platte River Valley during the last two decades of the 19th century, another on names for the movie projector that were tried and discarded before 1900, and an entry on the cautionary implications of the Stuxet virus for our industrial infrastructure, most especially the electrical grid. (Stuxnet is the worm that targeted a particular type of Siemens control system used to operate centrifuges critical to Iran’s nuclear program. The virus kept itself hidden until they day it instructed the centrifuges to spin so fast they purportedly self-destructed.)

Fidel, Israel, and Iran

Do not miss Jeffrey Goldberg’s continuing posts about his surprise command audience with Fidel Castro last week. First instalment here; second here.

fidel and goldberg-300Goldberg is a perplexing figure, a former member of the IDF, quick to call anti-semitism against anyone who balks at his lockstep advocacy of troubling Israeli policies. He caused a stir recently with an Atlantic cover story speculating about an impending Israeli nuclear strike against Iran. Many regarded the article as thinly disguised tub-thumping for such an attack (see here and here), while others demurred. In the end, the Atlantic held an extensive, online print debate about the issue — which may turn out to be the most important of the decade.

Turns out Castro was reading, and two weeks ago, Goldberg got a phone call from Jorge Bolanos, head of the US State Department’s Cuban Interest Section.

“I have a message for you from Fidel,” Bolanos said. “He has read your Atlantic article about Iran and Israel. He invites you to Havana on Sunday to discuss the article.”

Goldberg and Castro, who is clearly worried about the prospect of war in the Middle East, chatted for three days, and while he might not be my choice for an interlocutor, he was Fidel’s, and the results are fascinating.