Archive for ‘Cultural History’

April 16, 2012

In Praise of Transitional Technology

I got a Kindle. When this happened, some of my friends raised their eyebrows. They like books, and they know I like books, so why would I add nails to that coffin. Of course, as I am fond of pointing out here (and anywhere), this is both equivocation and unnecessary panic. Books are doing fine in their hard format. Also, and more importantly here, books will still exist, they will just be in a different format. Conceivably, they will be in digital, e-book form.
Before any such complete switch happens, however, methinks the book will have had its revenge on the Kindle. Even if the Kindle turns out to be a soldier in the destruction of the book citadel, it is itself unlikely to be the one standing on the top of the hill victoriously waving a flag. Why? Because, despite what my friend, Miloš Luković wrote here about the elegance of single-function devices (and the Kindle is largely one such), they tend to get incorporated into more complicated digital devices. The iPod lasted a generation or two as a music device only, before it added video, and then with the iPhone transforming completely. Most phones have a music playing function, and nearly all of them have a camera. And the Kindle has its single-function up against the tablet’s complete set of computer functions. Tablets are probably now to lap tops what lap tops were to desktops fifteen years ago. Give the tablet a few more years and it might become the standard computer device for a person or household. Won’t the tablet incorporate the Kindle function?
Perhaps. Around the same time the transience of the Kindle occurred to me, I read that the e-mail attachment turned twenty. The Guardian had an article talking about the man who invented it, Nathaniel Borenstein, how it came about, and where it is today. Now that we have the cloud and social media, how much will the attachment be used? Mr. Borenstein himself makes a decent case that the attachment is still quite useful, but who’s to say that it will not go the way of the PalmPilot?
Which raises another interesting question. How many examples of transitional technology have existed in (let’s say) the last one hundred years (technology-obsessed as they have been)? Music is here the obvious example. Although the radio was not killed by TV, the victrola and the cassette deck are pretty much gone, and the CD is on its way out. Typewriters are another example. In a combination of the two, and a great piece of transitional technology, I found these images over at Colt + Rane.

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I have one more before I leave you without having said anything. I have no idea how scientific or true this is, but

It appears from this that WordPress is still climbing, but for how much longer? Word? Press? In a digital world of images? It just can’t last. Enjoy it while you can.

Post Scriptum
If you follow the above link to the Guardian article about the e-mail attachment, you may notice that the photo of Nathaniel Borenstein was taken, no doubt digitally, and e-mailed to the editor as an attachment, by a Christian Sinibaldi. Where have I heard that last name, Sinibaldi? Ah yes, Antonio Sinibaldi, about whom I wrote this last year: “Antonio Sinibaldi, scribe to the Medicis, who had “an elegant, gracile hand,” was the first major scribe to be put out of work by the Gutenberg machine in 1480.” I wonder if they’re related.

Post Scriptorum
Since it is now the way of the world (or will soon be), I have a tumblr.

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April 2, 2012

Character of Gold

If you don’t know about it, Tristram Shandy is a famous 18th century novel. Academics call it the postmodern novel two centuries before the postmodern. What’s more, it’s a great read.

One of the things I remember from the novel, which appeared in nine installments from 1759 to 1767, was part of the author’s dedication before volume IX. The sentence in it I really liked goes like this.
Honours, like impressions upon coin, may give an ideal and local value to a bit of base metal ; but Gold and Silver will pass all the world over without any other recommendation than their own weight.
Laurence Sterne is talking about character, of course. The title of Lord or Duke can be confer importance even upon the most vile man, but true quality of character will shine through anywhere regardless of the approval of powerful people. It is a noble sentiment.

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I am reading David Graeber’s book Debt, which talks about the history of money and credit. I may decide to write something about it when I’m done with it, but I came across this passage and remembered Sterne’s dedication. (The passage is a bit long, so I have chopped it up a little to shorten it, but the thread, I believe is there.)
“Yet the great public debate of the time [1690s], a debate about the very nature of money, was about not paper but metal. […] Something had to be done. A war of pamphlets ensued, which came to a head in 1695, one year after the founding of the bank. Charles Davenant’s essay on credit, which I’ve already cited, was actually part of this particular pamphlet-war: he proposed that Britain move to a pure credit money based on public trust, and he was ignored. […] The man who won the argument, however, was John Locke, the Liberal philosopher, at that time acting as advisor to Sir Isaac Newton, the Warden of the Mint. Locke insisted that one can no more make a small piece of silver worth more by relabeling it a “shilling” than one can make a short man taller by declaring there are now fifteen inches in a foot. Gold and silver had a value recognized by everyone on earth; the government stamp simply attested to the weight and purity of a coin, and – as he added in words veritably shivering with indignation – for governments to tamper with this for their own advantage was just as criminal as the coin-clippers themselves:
“The use and end of the public stamp is only to be a guard and voucher of the quality of silver which men contract for; and the injury done to the public faith, in this point, is that which in clipping and false coining heightens the robbery into treason.”
Therefore, he argued, the only recourse was to recall the currency and restrike it at exactly the same value that it had before. This was done, and the results were disastrous.”
(I added the emphasis, as well as the hyper link, obviously.)

Something interesting is going on here. As far as I know, most countries do not tie their monetary units to the gold standard. Britain went off it in 1931, and the US in 1971. I know that Marx argued against the concept that money ultimately derived its value from gold. Which means that Charles Davenenat was right, and John Locke was wrong. (Doesn’t it?)

But then, where does the value of gold come from? It’s not like Locke invented the idea of precious metals being valuable in themselves. Ancient civilizations already valued gold and silver, and we still do today. What makes them able to “pass the world over without any other recommendation than their own weight,” as Sterne wrote?

Could it be that gold is valuable in the way Davenant claimed money should be, that is, it simply has public trust? Is it valuable for no other reason than that somehow all of humanity (or a large portion of it, anyway) thinks it is valuable? Would that make both Davenant and Locke right, since it is a value based on trust, but is also recognized by everyone on earth?

And what of Sterne’s metaphor? If gold and silver have no intrinsic value, does that debase the metaphor? Should the sentence read “Gold and silver will pas the world over without any other recommendation than that which they already have from everyone, but that’s only because nobody has thought about it?” In which case they are not that different from base metal rendered important with honors. Somehow, this makes me unhappy…

March 17, 2012

Mapping the World

A year ago today, I posted a short entry on world maps. More specifically, it was about alternative world map projections. (A projection is the way in which the globe or any portion of it is represented on a flat surface.) Mostly, when people think of the map of the world, they have the Mercator projection in mind. It looks like this.

The Mercator projection was created by Gerardus Mercator, a 16th century Flemish cartographer. Its strength was that it was useful for European maritime navigators. Remember, this is the dawn of colonialism. In a good example of how science and politics can be married, Mercator provided the Europeans with a tool for navigation, and in turn, they disseminated his map all over the world and made it the dominant mode of representation of the globe. Which is one of the reasons I said that when the words ‘world map’ pop up, people think of the Mercator projection.

The strengths of the projection are also its weaknesses. From a cartography standpoint, it gets one too many things wrong: it places the equator too low (it’s not in the middle), it distorts the northern parts of the globe too much (giving a false sense of size to small northern countries), it is Eurocentric, and it places the northern hemisphere on top, encouraging thinking of the northern hemisphere as dominant. (I should say that these are the most common criticisms leveled at the map. There are probably more, and not everyone would accept all of them as valid. But that’s not the point here.)

The Gall-Peters projection fixes some of these problems. This, we are told, is more ‘accurate’.

Then there are other, more whacky projections that further fix some of the Mercator map problems. In the last entry I gave two of these. The Peirce projection, also known as the Quincuncial projection

and the Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion Map projection

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(Bear with me here, I’m not just recycling old material.)

A week or so ago, a university professor named Gene Keyes, commented on my original entry. He offered a link to his own article of criticism of the Dymaxion map in favor of the Cahill-Keyes projection. You can read all his arguments in detail here and here. I have myself only skimmed through the linked articles and I think I got the gist of the criticism. Apparently, decades before Buckminster Fuller created his Dymaxion map, Bernard J.S. Cahill was solving the same problems and came up with his own solution to the projection problems of the Mercator map. His solution is remarkably similar to Fuller’s later solution, and according to Keyes, Cahill’s is better.

According to Mr. Keyes, there are seven ways in which the Dymaxion Maps is deficient. They are:
1) Asymmetry of layout

2) Irregularity of graticule

3) Bad distortion of Korea and vicinity; also Norway

4) Poor scalability: the larger a Dymaxion map, the worse it looks

5) Anti-metric measurements; triangle edges have unstated irrational metric length of 7,048.89 km

6) Poor to zero comparison with any equivalent globe

7) Poor synoptic globe-and-map learnability

The Cahill projection (which Mr. Keyes would later amend to make the Cahill-Keyes projection) suffers from none of these problems. (I should add that this is all according to Mr. Keyes; not that I necessarily have any problems with his criticisms.)

The Cahill 1909 projection.

The Cahill-Keyes 1975 projection.

Now, I am not a cartographer, nor even a geographer. I don’t know what some of the words in those seven criticisms mean, and the only understanding I have of the concepts is through a superficial reading of Keyes’ article. I am ignorant of the issue, to say the least.

But there is something else. (And this is what this entry is really about.) I have no problem with criticizing the Mercator map or indeed the Dymaxion map. They might be more or less accurate, relative to other maps, they might be more or less suitable depending on the need. However, the claim from Cahill and Keyes is stronger (and Fuller probably fits this ideological criterion as well). Says Keyes:
Map-design-seekers are often asked: for what purpose do you want to use it? The conventional wisdom is that you must go with many different projections. Cahill begged to differ, and I concur:
I want a single, general purpose, world map projection, with high fidelity to a globe, suitable at all scales from smallest to largest, good for one country or the whole planet. I want a world map and globe as a synoptic pair, comparable to each other at a glance, or in detail. I want geography learners at any age to be able to grasp the globe and world map as readily as do-re-mi.

One map, one purpose. This is where my amateurish admiration for various projections and Cahill and Keyes’ project diverge.

This, I dare say, is not possible. For one, it just doesn’t seem likely that humanity will give up on the Mercator map. Somehow, for some reason or another, we seem to be invested in it. It is a convention that has been around long enough that it just might stick with humanity, even through massive civilizational changes. There is a decent argument to be made that we are currently going through one such civilizational shift, like the Middle Ages giving way to the Renaissance, or the Persian empire giving way to the Greek civilization. And if the Mercator map survives the change, and is able to transfer itself into the new age, it might be around for a very long time. Not as the only projection, but as the dominant one, the one people have in their heads when the words ‘world map’ are uttered.

(And if your conception of the civilization shift is tied to the change from analog to digital, then the fact that Google uses Mercator’s map – a fact that Keyes himself points out – has to be a strong argument for the projection surviving the jump.)

Nor would this be unusual for the human race. Just think of our concept of the day, the seasons, the year. Why would the day be divided into two twelve unit parts? It is a convention the Babylonians came up with 3000 (?) years ago, and it’s still with us (in a slightly changed form). Why should there be four seasons, and why should they be in the order they are in? If the Indian model of seasons had become dominant, we would perhaps only have two: wet and dry. If you exclude crop growing, we city dwellers (and of late we have become the majority, didn’t you know) could easily divide the year into more than four seasons: heating season, rainy season, falling in love season (for all I care), cooling season, melancholy season, shopping and partying season (to give an outrageous example). Why should the year have twelve months, and why should they have the number of days they have? (And don’t get me started on leap years.) Why would the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th months of the year be called the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth (September comes from the Latin for seven, October from eighth) … ?

In fact, after seizing power, the French revolutionaries made up a new “rational” calendar, whereby the year had ten months. (The Russian revolutionaries were more modest in their attempts: they only switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.) Why ten? Because we live in a world that uses the decimal system. Something that Keyes himself mentions as a strength of the Cahill projection over the Fuller projection. But why should this be better? What if future generations abandon the decimal system? (Perhaps in favor of the binary?) (Needless to say, the revolutionary calendar did not take.) And why should a sphere have 360 degrees? Why not 400? (In fact, I heard from someone once that the Russians had cannons during WWII that used a 400 degree circle, making a right angle 100, not 90 degrees.)

While these measurements sound arbitrary and irrational, they are vestiges of a time when their use was actually the most effective way of solving a specific problem. They have far outlived their usefulness, and are now simply convention. (Some have survived, and others have not, e.g. Roman numbers.) The Mercator projection falls neatly into this category, and there is little reason to think that it will not be just another in a long line of examples of this human phenomenon.

And this might be fine. Is there really a problem with the idea of a minute having sixty seconds? Or does anyone in America feel angst about the idea that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit? Or do those using Celsius really have a problem with their system of measurement being tied to physical properties of water (and not oxygen for example, or lead)?

This is not to say that Mercator map doesn’t have its problems. As I mentioned before, it does. Its problems can be discussed and other projections used to solve them. But the idea of a “better” map replacing and completely suppressing the use of Mercator’s map, just seems unlikely to me.

There are further reasons why I don’t think the Cahill-Keyes projection could become “the one” map.

I can think of one aspect according to which the Mercator (and the Peters) projection might best (I have to be careful here) the Peirce, Fuller, and Cahill. And that’s time. For someone who has a sister six time zones away, and friends two, three, four time zones before and after him, the passage of time seems mapped better on a cylindrical projection rather than the Quincuncial one or an unfolded icosahedron.

Further, it needs to be said that all these projections are heavily biased towards landmasses. That makes sense given that we think of ourselves as land creatures. But what if we once again become a civilization of maritime navigators? And I don’t mean like in Mercator’s time. I mean like the Polynesian civilization which used stick charts as maps of ocean swells and currents. The charts also map islands, but more to show how they interrupt ocean swells rather than give any significant detail of the landmass.

And what of potential space travel? This might sound like science fiction, but I am not convinced that space travel now is that dissimilar from what sailing around the world was in 1480, the year Ferdinand Magellan was born. In a hundred years, the attempt to make “the one” projection of Earth might turn out to be the equivalent of trying to clearly divide arable land in England at the end of the 15th century – a parochial endeavor that will ultimately have no place in the larger map.

March 8, 2012

Dead in the Centre…Ough!

“There was a vast amount of red — good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn’t going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there — fascinating — deadly — like a snake. Ough!”

This is Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, describing a colonial map of Africa towards the end of the 19th century. The colors correspond to territories in control of various European powers. I’m not sure about all of them, but I think red are the British, blue the French, and the purple refers to Germans.

So I found this map.

The colors on this map are not the same as Marlow describes them, since his yellow, into which he is going, is here black – the Belgian Congo. Still a vivid illustration of how European colonialists carved up Africa at the time.

January 6, 2012

Information Gap

The word information, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, dates back to the 14th century. So does the verb inform. The noun informant is a little more recent (1657), as is the adjective informative (1655). But other words that have ‘information’ in them are mostly brand new: information theory (1950), information retrieval (1950), information science (1960), informatics (1967), right down to infotainment (1980), infomercial (1981), and information superhighway (1983).

All of that is a piece of information available to anyone with a dictionary or a internet connection. I mention information and dictionaries in the same sentence again because ever since I wrote a very short post about James Gleick’s book The Information, I’ve been wanting to revisit the subject. In that post I tried to convey an ambivalence about the idea of information and the paradigm it belongs to. On the one hand, a dictionary is indeed a source of information. And I loved the idea (this is from the previous post on Gleick) of a dictionary thought of as the DNA map of language, a double helix of words and definitions opened to the eye. Further, DNA itself is thought of as the information how to build a cell, how to create life, making it seem almost as if it is information that is the basis of life.

However, that something can be thought of as something is not the same as it being something. Perhaps a dictionary can be thought of as a source of information, but can it be reduced to this? Meaning, a dictionary is probably more than just a source of information. (I don’t know enough biology to make a similar claim about DNA, but I strongly suspect that this is the case with DNA as well.)

Anyway, the opportunity to think about this again presented itself when I saw two youtube videos. Here is the first.

This is a video of pictures taken world wide throughout the year 2011. The good people over at triposo made it for our pleasure. In addition to this video, on their website they give stills and talk about why various parts of the globe light up at various times.

There is a problem.

[There are at least a couple, actually. But I’m going to leave aside the one where in a single image they talk about one part of the world, while another part is just as lit up.
For March 21st they mention why Iran is all lit up, but not why Spain and Portugal are. In fact Spain is more lit up in March than in November for All Souls Day, a Catholic holiday they mention on the site. But I think that’s less of a problem.]

On November 30th, the whole world just flashes. They don’t know why. Aside from January 1st no other day lights up the world as much. They sort of explain it away: “It’s a camera setting thing, we expect.” But this got me thinking. The information they gave is, although a wonderful presentation of a year in pictures, didn’t teach us anything. Most days and flashes we can ourselves explain because we know the dates of holidays and the vacationing habits of certain populations; the ones we can’t explain (November 30th), the flashes cannot either, nor the people who compiled the video.

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Here is the second video.

This is a Stanford University project called Mapping the Republic of Letters. They have a wonderful site all about the project here. The visualizations and graphics are just fantastic, I think. The idea of actually mapping this abstract ‘republic’ as if it were itself a country, also speaks to me intensely.

But thinking of the letters as information, as roadways that come to physically represent a country (in the way that, for example a map of roadways will concretize an abstract idea such as France, the country) – well, something is lost, no? Can it really be said that Voltaire was more of a citizen of the Republic of Letters if he wrote more of them than Rousseau? Is it not simply a case of having the means (Rousseau bounced around between residences much more than Voltaire), being a nicer person (Jean-Jacques was notoriously good at making enemies) and being better connected (Voltaire simply knew more people in higher places)?

And then also, do all letters carry equal weight? Do Voltaire’s five letters to his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, who would have also been an equal member in the RL, count the same as one letter to David Hume?

I guess I am wondering what the great thinkers who comprised the RL would have thought of our informational attempt at mapping them. Or what the 18th century thinkers who put together our reference books for the first time, dictionaries and encyclopedias would have thought of our reading them as information retrieval systems. While information mapping is wonderful and has undoubtedly been very useful, how much are we reading our own paradigms of the world back onto the past?

Remember, the word information is from the 14th century. How do we understand its meaning prior to our changing it to suit our own purposes?

December 13, 2011

Think Big

A couple of years ago I read an interview with the maverick architect Lebbeus Woods from 2007. The eye catching aspect of the online article was a drawing of a reimagined New York.

Here is what he had to say about his thoughts regarding the drawing:

I think the main thought I had, in speculating on the future of New York, was that, in the past, a lot of discussions had been about New York being the biggest, the greatest, the best – but that all had to do with the size of the city. You know, the size of the skyscrapers, the size of the culture, the population. So I commented in the article about Le Corbusier’s infamous remark that your skyscrapers are too small. Of course, New York dwellers thought he meant, oh, they’re not tall enough – but what he was referring to was that they were too small in their ground plan. His idea of the Radiant City and the Ideal City – this was in the early 30s – was based on very large footprints of buildings, separated by great distances, and, in between the buildings in his vision, were forests, parks, and so forth. But in New York everything was cramped together because the buildings occupied such a limited ground area. So Le Corbusier was totally misunderstood by New Yorkers who thought, oh, our buildings aren’t tall enough – we’ve got to go higher! Of course, he wasn’t interested at all in their height – more in their plan relationship. Remember, he’s the guy who said, the plan is the generator.

So I was speculating on the future of the city and I said, well, obviously, compared to present and future cities, New York is not going to be able to compete in terms of size anymore. It used to be a large city, but now it’s a small city compared with São Paulo, Mexico City, Kuala Lumpur, or almost any Asian city of any size. So I said maybe New York can establish a new kind of scale – and the scale I was interested in was the scale of the city to the Earth, to the planet. I made the drawing as a demonstration of the fact that Manhattan exists, with its towers and skyscrapers, because it sits on a rock – on a granite base. You can put all this weight in a very small area because Manhattan sits on the Earth.

When I first read this, I thought “how wildly, insanely implausible. Wonderful but implausible.”

Then a few weeks ago, I saw online a map of an “extended Manhattan,” from 1922.

And yet, this map is the downsized plan of a “really greater New York,” by Dr. T. Kennard Thomson from as early as 1911. In an article published in 1916, he describes “a project to reclaim fifty square miles of land from New York Bay, to add one hundred miles of new waterfront for docks, to fill in the East River, and to prepare New York for a population of twenty million.” This is what it would look like.

What you’re looking at is Manhattan and Brooklyn attached by reclaiming land from the East River, which itself would be moved east, running from Flushing bay to Jamaica bay. Manhattan is extended south by some five miles (to the mouth of the Varrezano narrows). And several other parts of New York bay turned into land.

Now, I have no idea if this would actually be possible from an engineering point. Dr. Thomson assures his readers in the article in which he proposes the whole plan that the “majority of engineers, however, have acknowledged the possibility, and [that he has] received hundreds of letter of encouragement.” Obviously, he’s selling his own idea, so he’s biased, but beyond that, the whole article just brims with optimism and unbridled faith in progress. He sounds not just like a man who thinks this is possible, but that whether it is carried out in his time, it will sooner or later be accomplished. You should read the (quite short) article here, if only for its tone.

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The tone, however, is significant, I would here like to claim. Of course it is posturing of a man with outrageously ambitions ideas. And to our ears, this sounds like pure fantasy, giving the confidence of the tone a slight ridiculousness. But what if instead of thinking of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson as foolhardy, we think of our own thoughts about New York city shackled by what it is, making us unable to think of New York as how it might have been? In other words, what if we all thought of New York a little more like Lebbeus Woods?

In 1911, New York was going through a massive expansion. The Flatiron building was still new, the Met Life tower was the tallest building in the world (briefly), soon to be overtaken (in 1913) by the Woolworth building. This is the time when most of New York’s subway lines were laid out, and in general when the city took the shape that we are so familiar with. Had people at the time thought (dreamed) bigger, like dr. Thomson, would it not have been possible that it actually become bigger? Instead of a Manhattan connected to Brooklyn, and very close to Staten Island, and a city of twenty million, we have eight million, and the Varrezano bridge. (Itself an engineering marvel and nothing to be sneered at in terms of size, but still far short of dr. Thomson’s plan.)

Let me even go a step further. I do not think it is an accident that dr. Thomson and Lebbeus Woods talk about a radical enlargement of New York at the moments that they do. For dr. Thomson, it was, as I said, a moment when New York was exploding. For Woods, it is a moment when it is again possible to dream big about big cities. What I mean by this is that New York was basically formed by the 1930’s. Of course it has changed since, but its scale was set by the time the Chrysler building was topped out (let’s say). But as Woods points out, New York’s size, the basis of its global appeal for at least half a century, is now nothing special. Since the 1990’s, Asian and Latin American cities have been exploding in the way that New York did a hundred years ago.

It is, I think and despite Lebbeus Woods’ best efforts, too late for New York. But the question remains, for these other cities: in your expansion, what will you look like? So, São Paulo, Mexico City, Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing – should you encounter your equivalent of Dr. T. Kennard Thomson, this would be the time to listen to him.

December 6, 2011

What do you see when you look through the pedascope?

This post was going to be about something else. I found out (via the Retronaut) about this fantastic contraption called the pedascope or shoe-fitting fluoroscope. It struck me as a good example of a our contemporary overreliance on what we think of as science.

Ok, one thing at a time. The pedascope was used from the 1920s until sometime in the 1960s, and was basically an X-ray machine that looked at your feet and issued shoe-fitting data. It strikes me that, more than a fad, there is an ideology behind this thinking. Since science has been terrifically successful in explaining, reinventing, reinterpreting our world from about the sixteenth century onwards, it has gradually pushed aside other criteria and ways of looking at the world in the popular imagination. If you ever want to win an argument at a dinner table, just claim that a study has been done proving whatever it is you claim. (Of course there probably has been a study proving that, just as there has been a study proving the opposite.) If ever you need to sell a product, just say that it was developed scientifically, or in a lab, or that scientists were consulted. This lends credibility.

If this were, however, just a case of human folly, things would be bad but forgivable. But the pedascope shows how this fad, while seemingly silly, is really quite dangerous. Overexposure to X-rays can, as we now know, lead to cancer. The pedascope is, in a sense, a mini version of the problem of eugenics. People thought (smart people!) that now that we have these scientific methods about what people and bodies should be like, we might as well use them and create a better human, or as the case may be, shoe.

And while I think this is a valid way of looking at the phenomenon of the pedascope, this post is about a different aspect of this device. It is about what Thomas Hayden over at The Last Word on Nothing lovingly calls crap technology. While hipsterishly retro in tone, the article did get me thinking about how quickly technology goes from cutting edge to crap. And it’s not just that better stuff replaces older stuff, the older stuff is also different. Vinyl records had the word ‘record’ in them, as in a record of an event, something that was lost on later music carriers. Making a mixed tape turned out to be quite different from making a mixed CD. iPods made music stores obsolete, we get our music off the internet. And mp3 music has to come with a video, because multimedia is here to stay.

Conversely, though, this means that if we were to look backwards, at technology that has long ago passed into the realm of ‘crap’, we would also catch glimpses of ways of living different than our own. Enter Maurice Collins, from this BBC article from back in 2006 (when Youtube was only a couple of years old and Facebook was still only for American colleges, lest we forget a world without those existed once upon a time). As an amateur collector, Collins collected enough gadgets from the end of the 19th and early 20th century to create three separate exhibits. From self-pouring tea pots to an automatic tennis ball cleaner, the man has over a thousand separate items. Self-pouring tea pots! Wait a minute, what does that mean? Why would people have self-pouring tea pots? Or, another piece from the collection, a mustache preserver. If we no longer have these, does that mean that men are simply not growing their mustaches anymore? Or that they care less about them being covered in beer? Are there men today who cover their mustaches the way Hercule Poirrot does in the 1974 movie incarnation of Agatha Cristie’s Murder on the Orient Express?

[I wish I had a screen shot of this. But if you’ve seen the film, you know what I mean.]

And what about the pedascope? Do our feet no longer hurt? Have we no need for better shoes? Is there no more a right and wrong way of wearing footwear? Perhaps sneakers carry some of this in them when they are advertized as worn by this athlete or that. It seems that our world finds it far more important what shoe allows you to jump high (to make the basket), rather than…well, I don’t know…

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December 2, 2011

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species

About a year ago, I read this piece on a blog of a friend o mine, and loved it. (The original, for those who read Serbo-Croatian, can be found here.) With his permission, I translated it, and thus bring you

A Short Guide to Getting to Know the Human Species
by Miloš Luković

On July 15th 1972, the space probe Pioneer 10 left Cape Canaveral for outer space, designed to go beyond the Solar system. It was later followed by Pioneer 11, as well as Voyager 1 and 2. As part of the Pioneer 10 project, a gold-anodized aluminum plaque was welded onto the antenna support struts. Its purpose was to describe who we are and our location to potential extraterrestrials. Among other things, the plaque features a drawing of a man and a woman. They are drawn in the nude. Why? Why are they naked? How is it that nakedness describes people well?

the plaque attached to Pioneer 10

Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not a puritan, against nudity for moral reasons. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it is as far from the truth as a naked man is from a complete man. To be complete, a man has to have pockets, which I claim out of personal religious conviction.

I was once asked what I believed in. I said that I believed in pockets. Pockets are very useful. Useful to keep things so as to free my hands. Free to give the middle finger to people who ask stupid questions.

However, pockets have a utility that surpasses my needs. One carries all of oneself in one’s pockets. Alright, alright! I am aware that half the human population prefers to carry all of itself in its purse. As far as I’m concerned, pockets beat purses every time, if for no other reason, then because they are sewed to clothes and thus more practical. A purse I would constantly forget. I’d forget my own head were it not for my neck connecting it to my body. Now that we’ve settled that, let’s see about the contents. Here, I’ll empty my pockets onto the table. House keys, wallet, mp3 player and a mobile phone. Trinkets? Perhaps to the untrained eye.

If you were to try to describe humanity as a species, you couldn’t get around pocket contents. Pockets are incredibly important because they hold everything that anyone could ever tell you about Homo sapiens. Before we begin, let me mention that I know that I’m writing this for other Homo sapiens, and not some other, extraterrestrial species, so if you think I’ve left something out, you’re either an ET or you’re not paying attention.

Let’s go in order:
Keys – among pocket trinkets, this is the most common. Keys point to having a residence or a home, a place to harbor you from inclement weather, heat, cold, tiring members of your species. Your residence is where you live. A home is your personal space. Space for an individual. And people who say that the family is the basic unit of society, let them answer me this: why is it, then, important for each family member to have their own room? Wherever you chose to live, apartment, house, cottage, mansion, your house had to be made. This points to a myriad sciences, technology, crafts, trades that man has mastered. Mastered, not so much to build shelter, but to make this shelter adequate for its own kind (as opposed to shelters made by birds, termites, or beavers).
Billfold [1] – a most interesting object that could tell us something about man. Starting with its name: billfold. The word itself tells us it is meant for holding bills. Bills, money, these are universal equivalents in market trading. A sort of shortcut in exchange of goods. Instead of exchanging goods, you pay for things you need. Money indicates complex inter-human relations caused by an arbitrary division of resources on the planet humans inhabit. We call this the economy. However, the wallet holds within it other things characteristic for Homo sapiens – documents. In complicated familial, tribal, and inter-tribal relations, with the increase in population, we have arrived at the point of not knowing all the people from our own community. This is what documents are for. They tell us who we are. Where do we com from, when were we born, where we live, and most importantly, how we look? Documents are essential. When you are born, you are issued a paper recording the birth. You don’t even know that you are born if you have no papers. When you die, you are issued a paper. If there is no paper, you didn’t die.
Mp3 player – my favorite gadget. I prize it above the cell phone and wrist watch. Although I am not one of those who venerate so-called “single function devices,” I must admit that there is a certain elegance to them. Whence the mp3 player on the complete man? Simply because an aspect of the complete man ought to relate exclusively to art. This is why I don’t mind it being a single function device. It won’t cover all the arts, but that’s less important. It’s enough to make my point.
Cell phone – this object found in everyone’s pocket is most controversial. Plenty of debating can be done about this one, but I’ll say that we haven’t yet gotten completely used to it. Future generations, those growing up with digital technologies as inevitable part of their landscape, will not even consider this object especially odd or worth debating, but there is an aspect I would like to mention. Every cell phone has in it a phone book. A phone book with the numbers of people more or less important in our lives. Those more important we place on our speed dial list, for ease of access. The cell phone is a manifestation of man’s desire to have those nearest to him at hand at all times.

There. A religious confession. Like all confessions, limited to the interpretation of the one offering it. A pocket confession, appropriate to our modern age.

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1. I am using the word billfold here because the Serbo-Croatian word novčanik contains within it the word for money, which wallet does not.

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August 3, 2011

Punctuate Me!

To see how easy it is to put on one’s cultural blinkers and be unable to imagine other ways of living, one need only look at typography. How words are produced (writing, printing, typing), the various fonts they appear in, and the symbols that tie them together are things we take for granted. If you’d like to be disabused of this notion, have a look at Keith Houston’s blog Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation.

At first I would just tell you about because it is an extreme case of wonderful geekery, but the more I read the more I realized how much rich cultural tradition is hidden beneath each familiar symbol. I am just going to cover some points of some symbols he discusses in more detail.

Consider the ampersand. The & symbol started out as graffiti in Pompeii sometime around 79 AD. Shorthand for the Latin et, meaning and, in high brow circles was a different symbol: ‘⁊’. The ‘Tironian et’, named after Tiro, Cicero’s scribe and secretary, still exists in Irish Gaelic, but has been replaced everywhere else by ‘&’. But between its invention and us today, the ampersand took some deviations.

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But if the symbol’s origins are ancient, its name is much more recent. According to Houston, it was included as the twenty-seventh symbol on tablets for children learning the English alphabet. Kids would recite the alphabet and when they got to the end they would say X, Y, Z, and per se AND. (Per se means by itself, distinguishing the symbol from the rest.) From and-per-se-and we derive ampersand.

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Unlike the ampersand, we don’t know where the name octothorpe comes from. Other names for the symbol are ‘hash’, ‘pound’, ‘number sign’. We do know that the symbol derives from the Latin term libra pundo, meaning a pound on the scales, or a pound. English kept the second part of the phrase as the word that denotes weight, but gets its unit symbol from the first part of it. Hence 5lbs, lb being short for libra. The symbol ‘#’ also comes from that shorthand ‘lb’ since writing it quickly would result in the two upright lines being crossed twice to complete the letters.

Since then, the octothorope’s uses have been as varied as the theories of the word itself. Named for James Edward Oglethorpe; named to designate a village, where eight fields (octo in Greek) surround a central square (thorpe is a village in old English); named by Bell Telephone Lab engineers to confound foreign speakers who could not pronounce the diphthong ‘th’ in it; named after the outer eight points (for the octo part) and Jim Thorpe, an early Olympic gold medalist…Take your pick, nobody knows.

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My favorite is the pilcrow. Says Houston “This is a pilcrow: ¶.” It’s that symbol that denotes the beginning of a paragraph. The pilcrow’s story itself is rather simple. The word is derived from the Greek word paragraphos (becoming pelagraphe, pylcrafte, and eventually pilcrow). But the symbol, although it looks like a reversed P, comes from the letter c, for capitulum (the other name for the symbol today), or little head, as in a new heading.

However, that straightforward story hides a much richer history and more far reaching consequences. Houston goes back to Homeric times and what writing was like then, when there WERE ONLY CAPITAL LETTERS, ANDTHEYWEREWRITTENWITHOUTSPACESORPUNCTUATION. Yeah, that says ‘and they were written without spaces or punctuation’. (Moreover, the sentences went both from left to right and right to left in alternating lines.) It was when Greek became the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean world and foreigners had to interpret Greek texts that Aristophanes of Byzantium, the librarian of Alexandria, introduced punctuation to make it easier to read the text.

Even with his invention of three different dots called komma, kolon, and periodos (!), the Romans did not take to punctuation. It took Christianity for punctuation to really proliferate. And even then, punctuation was not put in by the author, but rather by the reader or the teacher to indicate to the student where to pause, where to take a breath, where to stop. Christianity also introduced spaces between words and lower case lettering. The also introduced the letter K at the beginning of a text (for kaput, meaning head) and c at each paragraph, as I said, meaning capitulum, or small heading.

The K fell out of use, but the c grew in importance. So much so that when a text was written, the scribe would leave space at the beginning of each paragraph for a separate person to come in and paint, in red, an elaborate letter c. This morphed into ‘¶’. Even after Gutenberg invented the press, the ¶ had to be written in by hand, only now, because printing quickly became cheap and easy, the people who painted the capitulum couldn’t keep up with the amount of books. The space was simply left blank, leaving us with the habit of leaving an indentation at beginning of paragraphs.

August 2, 2011

Yo-Yo and the Heart

Things are rarely simple. Even those simplest will be found complex in (at least) three ways. They have origins, precursors, stories of generation, a history; they can be broken down into parts, or certain aspects can be put in focus or privileged; if different cultures have it, it will vary in form and function – you can count on that.

So the yo-yo. I’ll tell you in a moment what prompted me to look this up, but right off the bat, the Wikipedia article on the yo-yo will complicate this simplest of toys. Certainly ancient, we don’t know how old it is exactly, but it dates at least back to 500 BC. One theory for the origin of its name is a language in northern Philippines, but this is disputed. Actually, even its names are multiple: yo-yo, bandalore, quiz, emigrette, joujou…

The other thing that struck me on the Wiki entry on yo-yos is that the toy has engendered its own jargon. There are tricks called ‘sleeper’ and ‘walk the dog.’ There is such a thing as off-string play (“in which the yo-yo is not attached to the string at all.” How does that work?), looping and freehand. And owing to the recent technical innovations, the engineering that goes into making various types of yo-yos is simply staggering.

There is a website dedicated to the history of the yo-yo: Lucky’s History of the Yo-Yo, by one Lucky Meisenheimer, M.D. There we read that “[d]ue largely to the efforts of Dale Oliver, the first modern  world yo-yo championships were held in 1992 and his leadership also resulted in the formation of the American Yo-Yo Association in 1993.” (We truly are the pinnacle of human civilization!)

yo-yo or bandalore in 1791

On the same website, we also find out that “[d]uring the late 18th century the yo-yo became very popular in France amongst the nobility.” And Lucky continues that “[b]eing a very fashionable toy of the French nobility during the time of the guillotine, when the heads of the nobility started being loped off [an image not unlike the yo-yo, I must interject here], many of the nobles wisely emigrated along with their yo-yos.”

This connection with the French Revolution brings me to the impetus of my inquiry into the yo-yo. I am reading Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Erotic Poems, which is a bunch of filthy (if deliciously so) love poems. The Venetian Epigram No. 37 goes like this:

“What an agreeable toy! A disc on a string, I unwind it, 
Casting it out of my hand, and it rewinds in a trice.
That’s how I seem to be casting my heart at this and that beauty:
But it is never long gone, bounces straight back, as you see.”

The yo-yo: a simple toy and metaphor for a fickle heart.