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“Life in the Middle East is quite different from other places”*…

 

Confused about what’s happening in the Middle East? No need to worry—our research team at the Institute of Internet Diagrams has come up with the ultimate explainer in the shape of an interactive diagram that sums up the geopolitical alliances traversing this ancient region, which dates back to the Mesozoic Era…

While it is common to hear people describe the Middle East as a complex and obscure place, the diagram plainly illustrates that this is not the case. The relationships follow logical patterns reflecting geopolitical interests, partnerships, and conflicts. For example, the United States is evidently on friendly terms with Iran. In Iraq. But America is on the opposite side of the conflict in Yemen. In Syria, the U.S. and Iran are both against and with each other, depending on the outcome of the nuclear talks.

This partially reflects President Obama’s breakthrough system of decision-making, which goes beyond outdated binary oppositions. Forced to choose between confronting and appeasing Iran, Obama has chosen to do both, arguing that at least one of those policies is the right one. Despite critiques from conservatives who are still clinging to old-fashioned ideas, this way of thinking is quite popular in the Middle East, as reflected in the old proverb, “You can have your cake and eat it.”

By carefully following the lines one by one, you can see that Egypt and Qatar are against each other, except in Yemen where they are now allies; Saudi Arabia is both supporting and bombing ISIS; and Libya is its own worst enemy. But it’s best if you draw your own conclusions; the diagram only takes about three minutes to understand fully. After which, you will be qualified to advise President Obama on Middle East policy.

More at: “The Confused Person’s Guide to Middle East Conflicts.”

Colonel Brighton: Look, sir, we can’t just do nothing.

General Allenby: Why not? It’s usually best.

- Lawrence of Arabia

 

Zaha Hadid

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As we search for lines in the sand, we might recall that it was on this date in 1991 that General H Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr– Stormin’ Norman, the Commander of Operation Desert Storm– publicly apologized to President George H.W. Bush for having criticized the Commander in Chief’s decision to call a cease fire to end the (first) Gulf War.

General Schwarzkopf and President Bush in a HUMVEE during the President’s visit with troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day, 1990

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Written by LW

March 29, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The key of the success of Studio 54 is that it’s a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor”*…

 

In 1977, at the height of the disco craze, a club opened at 254 West 54th Street in New York City. Studio 54 was—and, arguably, remains—the world’s most renowned and legendary disco. Regularly attended by celebrities such as Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Michael Jackson, Calvin Klein, Elton John, John Travolta, Brooke Shields and Tina Turner, the club fostered an atmosphere of unadulterated hedonism for New York’s art and fashion set. Hasse Persson [c.f., here] and his camera were frequent club guests from 1977–80. The images he photographed there have become legendary, capturing the club’s famed revelers, dancers in costume and general, drunken exhilaration—and yet, incredibly, Studio 54 (published by Max Ström) marks the first time in history that they have seen publication. Almost 35 years after the club’s unceremonious and sudden closure, this beautiful hardback volume superbly documents the zeitgeist…

More at “Never Before Published Photos of Studio 54” and at Persson’s own site.

* Andy Warhol (seen, holding his camera, at the bottom of the photo above)

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As we look for the “Hot Stuff,” we might recall that it was on this date in 37 CE that the Roman Senate conferred the Principate on Caligula.  His great-uncle Tiberius had left the office jointly to his grandson, Gemellus, and to Caligula; but Caligula had the will nullified on the grounds of Gemellus’ supposed insanity.

Caligula reigned until his assassination three-and-a-half years later by members of his own Praetorian Guard; the first two years of his tenure were marked by moderation– but accounts of his reign thereafter paint a portrait of extraordinary sybaritic excess and cruel, extravagant, and perverse tyranny…  leading many historians to suspect that Caligula succumbed in his last months to neurosyphilis.

A marble bust of Caligula restored to its original colors. (The colors were identified from particles trapped in the marble.)

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Written by LW

March 28, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Eight years involved with the nuclear industry have taught me that when nothing can possibly go wrong and every avenue has been covered, then is the time to buy a house on the next continent”*…

 

 

The Yucca Mountain Waste Depository sits empty.  Starting 1983, our electricity bills contained a tiny charge (a tenth of a penny per kilowatt-hour) meant to pay for the storage of nuclear waste until it’s safe– an estimated 10,000 years– at Yucca Mountain.  In 2014, after collecting $30 billion, the Department of Energy stopped the fee.  Five miles of tunnels—out of the intended 40—had already been carved into the rock, but there was no radioactive waste stored there.  Having missed its planned opening date of January 31, 1998 by an embarrassing margin, the Obama administration in 2010 abandoned the languishing plans to build Yucca Mountain.  Three-and-a-half years later, a court ruled the federal government couldn’t keep collecting fees for a site it had no intention of building.

That’s one way to see Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository’s continued nonexistence, as yet another political boondoggle: thirty billion dollars of taxpayer money collected to build a mythical mountain.

But Yucca Mountain is more than that. The ambition behind it far exceeds the two- or four- or even six-year terms of any politician. Here we were trying to build a structure that would last longer than the Great Pyramids of Egypt, longer than any man-made structure, longer than any language. When forced to adopt a long view of human existence—when looking back on today from 10,000 years into the future—it’s hard not to view Yucca Mountain in near-mythical terms. We can imagine future earthlings pondering it the way we ponder the Parthenon or Stonehenge today—massive structures imbued with an alien spirituality.

Ten thousand years may be the time scale of legends, but nuclear waste storage is a very real and practical problem for humans. It is a problem where incomprehensibly long time scales clash with human ones, where grand visions run up against forces utterly mundane and petty…

In 1981, the Department of Energy convened a task force on how to communicate with the future.

The panel of consulted experts included engineers, but also an archeologist, a linguist, and an expert in nonverbal communication. Dubbed the Human Interference Task Force, they were tasked with figuring out how to keep future humans away from a deep geological repository of nuclear waste—like Yucca Mountain…

Read more about HITF’s attempts to communicate with our far future selves at “The Cat Went Over Radioactive Mountain” in the terrific new Method Quarterly.

* The late, lamented Terry Pratchett

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As we reach for the kitty litter, we might send penetrating birthday greetings to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen; he was born on this date in 1845.  As a physicist working at the University of Würzburg in 1895, Röntgen became the first to discover– to produce and detect– electromagnetic radiation in the range we now know as x-ray (originally called “Röntgen ray”).  Two weeks after his discovery, he became the first person to create an image with x-rays, when he took a “picture” of his wife Anna Bertha’s hand.  For his discovery, Röntgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.  And in 2004, element number 111 roentgenium (Rg) was named in his honor.

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Written by LW

March 27, 2015 at 1:01 am

“This is a service station. We offer service. There’s no higher purpose”*…

 

This quaint art deco Tower Conoco Station and U-Drop Inn Cafe in Shamrock, Texas, was one of the first businesses the tiny panhandle town built along Route 66, in 1936. Built by architect Joseph Barry, it’s now owned by the city and used as a visitor’s center. (CLINTON STEEDS VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Gas stations are rarely known for their aesthetics. Looking like a truck stop is no compliment for a work of architecture. It hasn’t always been so: In the early days of American car culture, gas stations were designed with enough architectural flamboyance to lure customers off the highway. As driving has become an ingrained way of life, though, that extra design effort has fallen by the wayside. Though in general we’re not a huge fan of city driving, as long as people continue to rely on cars, there will have to be places to fuel up. Why make car infrastructure more of a blight on the landscape than it already is?

Some of the best-known architects of our time have set their sights on gas station architecture, from midcentury icons like Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, to Jean Prouvé to Norman Foster. In a new book from Architizer founder Marc Kushner, The Future of Architecture in 100 Buildings, Kushner devotes an entire section to this car-centic architecture that outclasses the barren Shell stations of today by a mile…

This gas station in Matúškovo, Slovakia, built in 2011 by Atelier SAD, looks like a spacecraft. The columns supporting the concrete overhang also serve as drainage pipes.  (TOMAS SOUCEK)

Fill ‘er up at “9 Gorgeous Gas Stations Throughout History.”

* “Socrates” (Nick Nolte), a gas station attendant in Peaceful Warrior

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As we opt for unleaded, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Britain introduced the first Driver’s Test for licensing.  Optional until 1935 (so as to avoid a crush at the test centers), the new requirement, enacted with the Highway Code of 1934, followed a year in which cars on the road topped 1 million in the U.K. and road deaths reached 7,300.  In an effort to calm motorists made nervous by the new requirement, Ford produced a short, reassuring film, narrated by motor racer and land speed record holder Sir Malcolm Campbell:

email readers click here for video

 

Written by LW

March 26, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you”*…

 

 click here (and again on the image there) for a much larger, scrollable version

There were 5.8 million telephones in the Bell/AT&T network in 1910, when this map was published. It shows the uneven development of early telephone service in the United States, and gives us a sense of which places could speak to each other over Bell’s long-distance lines in the first decade of the 20th century.

The Bell Telephone Company, which was founded in 1877, faced some competition early on from Western Union, but then enjoyed a virtual monopoly on telephone service until 1894, when some of Bell’s patents expired. Sociologist Claude Fischer writes of the years after that expiration: “Within a decade literally thousands of new telephone ventures emerged across the United States.” Some of those independents went into rural areas that Bell had not covered, because the company had focused on developing service in the business centers of the East Coast.By the time this map was printed, Bell had tried several different strategies, clean and dirty, to fight back against its competition, including (Fischer writes) “leveraging its monopoly on long-distance service,” pursing patent suits, controlling vendors of telephone equipment, and simply using its deep pockets to outlast smaller companies that tried to enter the market.

Theodore N. Vail, who took over in 1907, changed strategies, accepting limited government regulation while buying competitors or bringing them into the Bell system. The map shows Bell’s market penetration in 1910, three years after Vail took over. Some rural areas—Oklahoma, Iowa, northern and eastern Texas—are surprisingly well-covered, while others in the Southeast remain empty.

The discrepancy between coverage in the East and the West is perhaps the most striking aspect of the map. California remains sparsely served, and no long-distance lines reach all the way from coast to coast. AT&T constructed the first transcontinental line in 1914.

– Rebecca Onion, “A Telephone Map of the United States Shows Where You Could Call Using Ma Bell in 1910.”

* Alexander Graham Bell (the first intelligible words spoken over the telephone, March 10, 1876)

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As we listen for the dial tone, we might recall that it was on this date in 1857 that Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville received a patent for his “phonautograph,” the earliest known device for recording sound.  Intended as a laboratory instrument for the study of acoustics, it transcribed sound waves as undulations (or other deviations) in a line traced on smoke-blackened paper or glass.

Hear a sample– an excerpt of “Au Clair de la Lune” recorded by Scott himself in 1860, and believed to be the earliest recording of the human voice– here.

An early phonautograph (1859). The barrel on this version is made of plaster of paris.

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Written by LW

March 25, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I want the entire smartphone, the entire Internet, on my wrist”*…

 

As the world watches the clock for the release of the Apple Watch, the Computer History Museum reminds us that watches-that-compute have a very long history…

Ubiquitous, wearable computers have been a dream since at least the 1930s. Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy introduced the 2-Way Radio Watch worn by members of The City police force. At first merely a combination radio and wristwatch, eventually Tracy’s watch added television and other technical capabilities.

This comic strip, in turn, influenced Gene Roddenberry’s communicators on the television series Star Trek, and other images of watch-like communication/computation devices can be found throughout science fiction. The recent announcement of the Apple Watch has renewed interest in computerized wristwatches and revived the idea of a wrist-worn computer that is cool. Of course, the idea is hardly new but it took a long time for the wristwatch computer to reach levels that Dick Tracy achieved.

The earliest combination of the watch form factor with a computational device dates from late 19th century. English company Boucher’s received a patent for a circular slide rule in a pocket watch shape in 1876.

Boucher’s Calculator – circular slide rule

 

French company Meyrat & Perdrizet made a slide rule chronograph in 1890. The central portion of the device was a standard pocket watch face, with a circular slide rule with an independent hand surrounded it. Two dials at the top of the watch allowed it to perform calculations…

Follow the story– the introduction of wrist instruments in the early 20th century, the advent of electronics– at “It’s About Time: The Computer on Your Wrist.”

* Steve Wozniak

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As we strap it on, we might send timely birthday greetings to John Harrison; he was born on this date in 1693.  A self-educated English carpenter and clockmaker, Harrison invented the marine chronometer,  In the absence of a way for ships at sea accurately to ascertain their longitude, sailing was dangerous; cumulative errors in dead reckoning over long voyages led to ship wrecks and loss of life.  Indeed, the perceived threat– thus, the desire of a defense– was so great that Parliament offered a Longitude prize of £20,000 (£2.75 million) for a solution.  Harrison’s approach, which won that prize, was to create a clock so accurate that it could eliminate those errors. His “chronometers” were accurate to within seconds over long periods; his winning clock was off only 39.2 seconds over a voyage of 47 days… and helped create the conditions in which the Age of Sail flourished.  (More detail on the longitude problem and Harrison’s answer here.)

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Written by LW

March 24, 2015 at 1:01 am

“TWO AND TWO MAKES FIVE”*…

 

George Orwell and Aldous Huxley

In October of 1949, a few months after the release of George Orwell‘s dystopian masterpiece, 1984, he received a letter from fellow author (and Orwell’s French tutor at Eton) Aldous Huxley — who had, 17 years earlier, published his own grim vision of society’s future, Brave New World.  What begins as a letter of praise becomes a comparison of the two novels– and an explanation of why Huxley believes his own, earlier work to be the more realistic prediction…

Wrightwood. Cal.
21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

Source: Letters of Aldous Huxley, (via Letters of Note); image: George Orwell (via) & Aldous Huxley (via).

* George Orwell, 1984

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As we reach for the Soma, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that Benito Mussolini reformed the Milan fascio (literally, “bundle” or Sheaf”; here, a small political party) as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento (Italian Combat Party).  Its 200 members, answering Mussolini’s call for men “ruthless and energetic enough to make a clean sweep,” were the seed from which the Italian Fascist Movement grew.

The platform of Fasci italiani di combattimento, as published in Il Popolo d’Italia in 1919

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Mussolini a few years later, in his self-proclaimed role as Il Duce (The Leader).

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Written by LW

March 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

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