5 Intriguing Things: Friday, 1/10

The Bitcoin chip race, prosopography, tiny figurines in Singapore streets, colorful diagrams of nuclear reactors, and the telemarketer's lawyer of choice.

1. Perhaps the strangest thing about Bitcoin is that it's made chip development more exciting than it's been since Bob Noyce was still at Intel

"At the heart of the computers made by HashFast and similar startups such as KnCMiner and Butterfly Labs is a chip known as an ASIC, or an application specific integrated circuit. Unlike the general purpose Intel (INTC) chip powering a PC or an ARM (ARMH)processor in a smartphone, an ASIC typically performs a single function extremely well. A security company might make an ASIC to speed up the encryption of data, for example. For Bitcoin-mining toolmakers like HashFast, the goal is to make an ASIC that is precisely tuned to crunch Nakamoto’s algorithms. 'It would take 70,000 of Intel’s fastest chips to match one of ours,' de Castro says...

In August, Austin (Tex.)-based CoinTerra announced two Bitcoin computer designs, which it dubbed GoldStrike and TerraMiner. So far the company has $20 million in presales. Ravi Iyengar, a veteran chip designer, runs the startup. Iyengar has worked at Intel, NvidiaQualcomm, and, most recently, Samsung, where he led a team that developed chips for the company’s phones and tablets. After hearing about Bitcoin, Iyengar quit his job to use his experience to outrace other Bitcoin-mining startups. Iyengar has watched Intel, IBMApple, Samsung, and other heavyweights slug it out in the chip business for years. 'No arms race in the history of the chip industry even comes close to this,' he says."


2. Define prosopography.

"In historical studiesprosopography is an investigation of the common characteristics of a historical group, whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable, by means of a collective study of their lives, in multiple career-line analysis. Prosopographical research has the aim of learning about patterns of relationships and activities through the study of collective biography, and proceeds by collecting and analysing statistically relevant quantities of biographical data about a well-defined group of individuals. This makes it a valuable technique for studying many pre-modern societies."


A boy with wings (FoundIn)

3. There are a bunch of tiny figurines sitting on the streets of Singapore right now. 144 have been found; 264 are still waiting.

"Bringing art from exhibition spaces to urban streets, the figurines disrupt one's preoccupation in the metropolis and ask city dwellers to be more aware of their surroundings and notice the small details. All figurines in Foundin are individuals seeking to be found in one way or another, just like every one of us. By shrinking human figures to miniature plastic models, the project places a miniature city within a city and explores how we, the higher and larger beings, interact with much smaller counterparts."


4. Massive, colorful isometric drawings of the world's nuclear plants

Fulton Nuclear Power Plant Wall Chart (University of New Mexico)


5. The lawyer who has singlehandedly kept the most ethically questionable telemarketing firms calling on behalf of duped or duplicitous charities

"Copilevitz was on hand again in 2001, when Florida lawmakers made their own attempt to crack down in high-cost fundraising. They passed a law forcing charities to declare on mailers and fliers how much they spend on solicitors.

Copilevitz filed suit on behalf of two charities, including the Committee for Missing Children, No. 13 on the Times/CIR list... He won yet again. Copilevitz convinced a federal judge that spending 86 percent of donations on professional solicitors – as the Committee for Missing Children had done that year – does not make a charity unworthy of support."


Today's 1957 Language Tip:

-AL NOUNS. There is a tendency to invent or revive unnecessary verbal nouns of this form. The many that have passed into common use (as trial, arrival, refusal, acquittal, proposal) have thereby established their right to exist. But when words of some age (as revisal, refutal, appraisal [q.v.], accusal) have failed to become really familiar & remained in the stage in which the average man cannot say with confidence offhand that they exist, the natural conclusion is that there is no work for them that cannot be adequately done by the more ordinary verbal nouns in -ion (revision)-ation (refutation), &  -ment (appraisement). When there is need on an isolated occasion for a verbal noun that shall have a different shade of meaning from those that are current (e.g. accusal may suggest itself as fitter to be followed by an objective genitive than accusation; cf. the accusal of a murder, the accusation of a murder), or that shall serve when none already exists (there is e.g. no noun beheadment), it is better to make shift with the gerund (the accusing, the beheading) than to revive an unfamiliar accusal or invent beheadal. The use of new -al nouns, however, is due only in part to a legitimate desire for the exactly appropriate form. To some writers the out-of-the-way word is dear for its own sake, or rather is welcome as giving an air of originality to a sentence that if ordinarily expressed would be detected as commonplace. They are capable of writing bequeathal for bequest, or allowal for allowance. Except for this dislike of the normal word, we should have had account instead of recountal in Of more dramatic interest is the recountal of the mission imposed upon Sir James Lacaita. Surprisal, supposal, decrial may be among the hundreds of needless -al words that have been actually used. 

Observe that appraisal has now established its right to exist. 


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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