(Roughly) Daily

“Who that goeth on Pilgrimage but would have one of these Maps about him, that he may look when he is at a stand, which is the way he must take?*…

 

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Carta Marina, by Olaus Magnus, 1539

 

Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible in 1455, and the first published sailing directions appeared thirty-five years later. Print media encouraged the divergence of navigational information from material discussing the commercial prospects of trade at various ports. Printing promoted the widespread distribution of geographic and hydrographic information, including maps, to readers throughout Europe at a time when literacy was on the rise and the spreading use of vernacular languages made such works available to non-scholars…

Europe’s explorers actively sought and exploited both academic knowledge and geographic experience in their systematic search for new trade routes. Use of the sea ultimately rested on reliable knowledge of the ocean. Fresh appreciation for empirical evidence fueled recognition of the value of experience, and the process of exploration included mechanisms for accumulating and disseminating new geographic knowledge to form the basis for future navigation.

At the outset of the discovery of the seas, portolan charts recorded actual experiences at sea. These navigational aids provided mariners with compass direction and estimated the distance between coastal landmarks or harbors. Utterly novel for their time, portolans were the first charts to attempt to depict scale. Portolans created by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century explorers document Portuguese and Spanish discovery of Atlantic islands and the African coast and helped subsequent mariners retrace their steps. Accuracy of portolans was best over shorter distances, and they became less useful when navigators steered offshore.

In contrast to creators of portolans, armchair cartographers compiled world maps of little use for actual navigation but which reflected shifting knowledge of oceans. While manuscript maps had been produced alongside written manuscripts since antiquity, the earliest known printed map was included in an encyclopedia of 1470. It represents the world schematically within a circle, in which the three continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa are surrounded by an ocean river and separated from each other by horizontal and vertical rivers that form a T shape—hence the name “T-O” to describe this kind of map. Other early maps were based on Ptolemy’s work, on biblical stories or other allegories, or occasionally on portolans…

Although the majority of medieval maps and nautical charts of the Age of Discovery did not include sea monsters, the ones that do reveal both a rise of general interest in marvels and wonders and a specific concern for maritime activities that took place at sea, including in far distant oceans. The more exotic creatures are often positioned on maps at the edge of the Earth, conveying a sense of mystery and danger and perhaps discouraging voyages in those areas. Images of octopuses or other monsters attacking ships would seem to be warning of dangers to navigation…

An excerpt from a fascinating essay on how cartographers saw the– mostly blue– world in the Age of Discovery; read it in full at  “Mapping the Oceans.”

* John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

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As we find our way, we might light a birthday candle for Sir Francis Bacon– English Renaissance philosopher, lawyer, linguist, composer, mathematician, geometer, musician, poet, painter, astronomer, classicist, philosopher, historian, theologian, architect, father of modern science (The Baconian– aka The Scientific– Method), and patron of modern democracy, whom some allege was the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth I of England (and other’s, the actual author of Shakespeare’s plays)… He was in any event born on this date in 1561.

Bacon (whose Essays were, in a fashion, the first “management book” in English) was, in Alexander Pope’s words, “the greatest genius that England, or perhaps any country, ever produced.”  He probably did not actually write the plays attributed to Shakespeare (as a thin, but long, line of enthusiasts, including Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche, believed).   But Bacon did observe, in a discussion of sedition that’s as timely today as ever, that “the remedy is worse than the disease.”

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Written by LW

January 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves”*…

 

management slavery

Caitlin C, Rosenthal didn’t intend to write a book about slavery. She set out to tackle something much more mundane: the history of business practices. But when she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

As fascinating as her findings were, Rosenthal had some misgivings about their implications. She didn’t want to be perceived as saying something positive about slavery. On the contrary, she sees her research as a critique of capitalism—one that could broaden the understanding of today’s business practices…

The balance of this review of Rosenthal’s book, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, at Forbes (and here— the source of the image above– and here).

Slavery was, this essay suggests, baked into laissez-faire economics from the start; it was central to the thinking of the French thinkers who shaped Adam Smith’s theories.

By way of further American context, this essay from Rebecca Solnit: “The American civil war didn’t end. And Trump is a Confederate president.”

And more globally, lest one think that slavery– overt bondage– is something in humankind’s past, consider the plight of the 40 million enslaved today (and the ways that our regular patterns of consumption support their exploiters); follow The Global Slavery Index.

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we face history, we might celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on this day marked in his honor.  The holiday was established in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan signed the bill creating this federal holiday.  Reagan had opposed the holiday, citing its cost, joining southern Republicans like Jesse Helms, who were more naked in their reasoning; but the enabling legislation had passed by a veto-proof margin.

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Written by LW

January 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Time moves in one direction, memory in another”*…

 

lennon

A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. “Is it Coldplay?” she asked. It was “Imagine” by John Lennon. Hidalgo took it in stride that his student didn’t recognize the song. As he explains in our interview below, he realized the song wasn’t from her generation. What struck Hidalgo, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him, which was how music and movies and all the other things that once shone in popular culture faded like evening from public memory.

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third…

Last month Hidalgo and colleagues published a Nature paper that put his crafty data-mining talents to work on another question: How do people and products drift out of the cultural picture?…

Hidalgo explains the two ways that people and events drop from our collective memories at “How We’ll Forget John Lennon.”  Explore Pantheon here.

* William Gibson

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As we muse on memory, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that LaMarcus Adna Thompson received the first patent for a true “switchback railroad”– or , as we know it, a roller coaster.  Thompson has designed the ride in 1881, and opened it on Coney Island in 1884.  (The “hot dog” had been invented, also at Coney Island, in 1867, so was available to trouble the stomachs of the very first coaster riders.)

Thompson’s original Switchback Railway at Coney Island

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“Reality seems valueless by comparison with the dreams of fevered imaginations; reality is therefore abandoned”*…

 

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Presidents Park, near Williamsburg, Virginia

Birmingham-based photographer Leland Kent travelled the South to document “abandoned places”…

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Six Flags Amusement Park, near New Orleans

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Jax Lanes, Jacksonville, Florida

See more of these three sites and many others, all with explanatory history, at Abandoned Southeast.

* Emile Durkheim

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As we forget to remember, we might send acerbic birthday greetings to Alexander Humphreys Woollcott; e was born on this date in 1887.   A critic and commentator for The New Yorker (and a member of the Algonquin Round Table), he is probably more easily recognized these days as the inspiration for “Sheridan Whiteside,” the main character in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and for the far less likable character Waldo Lydecker in the Otto Preminger film Laura .  (Woollcott himself was convinced that he was the inspiration for his friend Rex Stout’s brilliant, eccentric detective Nero Wolfe; but Stout denied it.)

220px-alexander_woollcott_(1939) source

 

“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges”*…

 

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Hadrian’s Wall, England [source]

Almost anytime we examine the past and seek out the people most like us — those such as Ovid or the Chinese poets; people who built cities, knew how to read, and generally carried out civilian labor — we find them enclosed behind walls of their own making. Civilization and walls seem to have gone hand in hand. Beyond the walls, we find little with which we can identify — warriors mostly, of the sort we might hire to patrol the walls. The outsiders are mostly anonymous, except when they become notorious.

The birth of walls set human societies on divergent paths, one leading to self-indulgent poetry, the other to taciturn militarism. But the first path also pointed to much more — science, mathematics, theater, art — while the other brought its followers only to a dead end, where a man was nothing except a warrior and all labor devolved upon the women.

No invention in human history played a greater role in creating and shaping civilization than walls. Without walls, there could never have been an Ovid, and the same can be said for Chinese scholars, Babylonian mathematicians, or Greek philosophers. Moreover, the impact of walls wasn’t limited to the early phases of civilization. Wall building persisted for most of history, climaxing spectacularly during a 1,000-year period when three large empires — Rome, China, and Sasanid Persia — erected barriers that made the geopolitical divisions of the Old World all but permanent.

The collapse of those walls influenced world history almost as profoundly as their creation, by leading to the eclipse of one region, the stagnation of another, and the rise of a third. When the great border walls were gone, leaving only faint traces on the landscape, they left indelible lines on our maps — lines that have even today not yet been obscured by modern wars or the jockeying of nations for resources. Today, a newer set of walls, rising up on four continents, has the potential to remake the world yet again…

From an excerpt of David Frye’s Walls: a History of Civilization in Blood and Bricks. More at “The History of Civilization Is a History of Border Walls.”

Pair with Greg Grandin‘s bracing essay on America’s borders, and with “Walls are the foundation of civilization. But do they work?

* Joseph Fort Newton

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As we brood over borders, we might recall that it was on this date in 1639, according to the diary of John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, that the first UFO sighting in modern history occurred.

Winthrop wrote that… James Everell, “a sober, discreet man,” and two others had been rowing a boat in the Muddy River, which flowed through swampland and emptied into a tidal basin in the Charles River, when they saw a great light in the night sky. “When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square,” the governor reported, “when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine.”

Over the course of two to three hours, the boatmen said that the mysterious light “ran as swift as an arrow” darting back and forth between them and the village of Charlestown, a distance of approximately two miles. “Diverse other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place,” Winthrop added…

The governor wrote that when the strange apparition finally faded away, the three Puritans in the boat were stunned to find themselves one mile upstream—as if the light had transported them there. The men had no memory of their rowing against the tide, although it’s possible they could have been carried by the wind or a reverse tidal flow….

An odd sight returned to the skies of Boston five years later, according to another entry in Winthrop’s diary dated January 18, 1644 [the same date, five years later]. “About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away.”

screen shot 2019-01-12 at 11.10.07 am source

 

 

Written by LW

January 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship”*…

 

democracy

 

Democracy stopped declining in 2018, according to the latest edition of The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The index rates 167 countries by 60 indicators across five broad categories: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties. It is stricter than most similar indices: it concludes that just 4.5% of the world’s people live in a “full democracy”. However, the overall global score remained stable in 2018 for the first time in three years. Just 42 countries experienced a decline, compared with 89 in 2017. Encouragingly, 48 improved.

In recent years, threats to democracy around the world have become increasingly obvious. The Arab spring fizzled. China’s leader is poised to rule for life. Populists with autocratic tendencies have won elections in the Philippines, Brazil and Mexico and subverted democratic institutions in Hungary, Turkey and Poland. Perhaps because the trend is so glaring—strongmen in different countries often copy each other’s tactics, soundbites and scapegoats—voters are not taking it lying down. Political participation improved more than any other measure on the EIU’s index. This is true even in advanced democracies such as the United States, where voters are highly disgruntled. Polarisation in America has led to anger, gridlock and [a government shutdown]. According to Gallup polls from January to mid-November 2018, the share of Americans who approve of the way that Congress is handling its job had fallen to an average of 18%, down from 40% in 2000. Perhaps because they are so cross, they are more likely to vote. Turnout at the 2018 mid-term elections was the highest for over 100 years.

Parts of Europe are suffering from a democratic malaise. Italy fell from 21st to 33rd in the rankings after voters elected a populist coalition that seeks to bypass democratic institutions and curtail the civil liberties of immigrants and Roma. Turkey’s score declined for the sixth year in a row as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swept aside most constraints on his power. Russia deteriorated for the tenth year in a row, after the main opposition candidate was barred from running in a presidential election and Vladimir Putin continued to crush civil liberties. Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia saw slight improvements in 2018, mostly reflecting higher scores for political participation.

The report warns that all this may be a pause, rather than the end of democracy’s retreat. The global rise in engagement, combined with a continued crackdown on civil liberties such as freedom of expression, is a potentially volatile mix. It could be a recipe for instability in 2019.

See the report in full– and explore the interactive version of the map, above– at “The retreat of global democracy stopped in 2018.”

* Ralph Nader

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As we commit ourselves to citizenship, we might recall that it was on this date in 1961 that President Dwight D, Eisenhower made his farewell address on a national television broadcast.  Perhaps most famously, Eisenhower, the only general to be elected president in the 20th century, used the speech to warn the nation against the corrupting influence of what he described as the “military-industrial complex.”

But he also used the occasion to urge a long view of our America and its citizen’s responsibilities:

As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

250px-eisenhower_farewell source

 

“What, me worry?”*…

 

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When Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD—Humor in a Jugular Vein first appeared in 1952, it was like nothing ever seen before. The comic book parodied comic books, which were then under assault as purveyors of violence and degeneracy that contributed to delinquency, homosexuality, and, of course, the spread of communism. Mad made fun of all that, too.

Within three years, the publication became Mad Magazine, a name change that allowed it to flaunt the prohibitions of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was an industry effort to tone down comics and hold state censorship at bay. Soon television, movies, advertising, and politics all joined comics as fodder for Mad’s mordant humor. Indeed, the takeaway of Mad was that all of the above were forms of advertising.

Nathan Abrams argues that Mad’s non-partisan critique of Cold War America had more effect than the more famous New York intellectuals working for DissentCommentary, and Partisan Review… No icon was safe: Mickey Mouse, Khrushchev, Joe McCarthy, Superman, George Washington, Norman Rockwell, Madison Avenue, and psychoanalysis all become grist for the writers and artists working in the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman’s mill…

How Mad Magazine Informed America’s Cultural Critique

* Alfred E. Newman

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As we honor our elders, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that one of Mad‘s targets– Superman– went wide into the culture: the daily Superman comic strip premiered. (Superman, the character, had debuted in the comic Action #1 the prior year.)  The strips ran continuously until May 1966; at their peak they were run in over 300 daily newspapers and 90 Sunday papers, with a readership of over 20 million.

superman source

 

Written by LW

January 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

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