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“My ambition was to live like music”*…

 

synth

 

Mary Hallock Greenewalt always wanted to be known as an inventor. Born on September 8, 1871, in Syria Vilayet—present-day Beirut—to a Syrian mother, Sara Tabet, and an American father, she was sent at age 11 to live with relatives in Philadelphia. She began her professional life as a pianist in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh orchestras but around 1905, when Greenewalt was in her mid-30s, she began to experiment with a new kind of instrument. It would be a feast for the senses, combining color with sound. During performances, Greenewalt would use the various pedals, switches, and keyboards on her machine—essentially an early synthesizer—to play songs that were synchronized with projected light. She called her modified organ the “Sarabet.”

Tinkering with that creation—and then defending her claims on the inventions—became her life’s work. Between 1919 and 1926, Greenewalt filed 11 patents with the United States Patent Office for inventions related to the Sarabet. In 1932, she successfully sued General Electric for copyright infringement on the rheostat, a device she patented that varied the resistance of the electricity in the Sarabet.

Greenewalt and her inventions may not be widely known to most musicians today, but they were essential to the creation of many electric instruments, in particular the synthesizer, which would revolutionize the music industry in the 1960s…

Mary Hallock Greenewalt received 11 patents for her “color organ,” an early form of synthesizer. She would spend the rest of her life defending them: “Industrial Light and Magic.”

* Mary Gaitskill

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As we celebrate synesthesia, we might recall that it was on this date in 548 that “Hank Morgan” found himself transported from late 19th century America to 6th century England… in Mark Twain’s marvelous A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

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Frontispiece of the 1889 first edition, by Daniel Carter Beard

source

 

“Life is a DNA software system”*…

 

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DNA from discarded cigarette butts and chewed up gum has been used to create a series of life-sized 3D printed portraits for a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

American artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg walked the streets of New York picking up cigarettes and hair for her project called Stranger Visions.

She then analysed the DNA to work out the gender and ethnicity of the people involved as well as their likely eye colour and other traits including the size of their nose, before using face-generating software and a 3D printer to create a series of speculative portraits

More– and more photos– at “3D printed portraits made with DNA from cigarette butts to feature in new Wellcome Collection display.”

See also the analogically-related “Artificial Intelligence Generates Humans’ Faces Based on Their Voices.”

* Craig Venter

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As we noodle on nature and nurture, we might recall that it was on this date in 1981 that the USDA announced the first genetically-engineered vaccine for any animal or human disease: an immunization against Hoof and Mouth Disease (also known as Foot and Mouth Disease, or FMD), created using gene splicing.

NHF-FMD-Keep-Out source

 

“An investment in knowledge almost always pays the best interest”*…

 

Agnes Scott

The Agnes Scott GE College Bowl team: Katherine Bell, Karen Gearreald, Malinda Snow, and Betty Butler

 

America’s anti-intellectualism can be traced through the decline in popularity of the American quiz show. Most viewers think of Jeopardy! as the peak of quizzing aspirations. But Jeopardy!, while challenging, is still geared toward the viewer, feeding the audience accessible clues and manageable categories.

Take a look at Britain’s University Challenge in comparison. The program, whose format is based on the midcentury GE College Bowl, is aggressively uncharismatic. The quiz itself is notoriously difficult, tasking contestants with identifying obscure Indian cities, deep-dive classical compositions, and even failed American vice presidential hopefuls. University Challenge is still wildly popular, anchoring a Sunday evening slot on BBC. While the college quiz bowl continues to exist in the U.S., American television stopped broadcasting the event in 1970.

It’s been said over the years that trivia skews male. The assumption is not that women are less intelligent; the assumption is that for various reasons—structural discrimination, biology, increased pressure—women aren’t as able to compete. But GE College Bowl knocked that assumption on its ass. Women’s colleges won time and again on the decadelong program, handily beating elite institutions.

Barnard College beat Notre Dame and the University of Southern California in 1959 before going on a five-game winning streak in the 1967–68 season. Bryn Mawr had its own four-game tear in ’67. Wellesley won four consecutive games in ’70. And Mount Holyoke won twice in ’66 before losing to Princeton.

And then, of course, there’s the Agnes Scott game, now legendary among quiz fans for its high stakes, for the wide gap in expectations for the two teams, and for a killer last-second comeback…

The story of the match-up between Agnes Scott and Princeton on the GE College Bowl in 1966: “The Greatest Upset in Quiz Show History.”

* Benjamin Franklin

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As we celebrate cerebral celerity, we might send healing birthday greetings to Susan LaFlesche Picotte; she was born on this date in 1865.  A doctor and reformer in the late 19th century, she is widely acknowledged as the first Native American to earn a medical degree.  Beyond her medical practice, she campaigned for public health and for the formal, legal allotment of land to members of the Omaha tribe.

Doctor.susan.la.flesche.picotte source

 

“One of the things I did not understand, was that these systems can be used to manipulate public opinion in ways that are quite inconsistent with what we think of as democracy”*…

 

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Nineteen years ago, in his third annual call for answers to an Annual Question, John Brockman asked members of the Edge community what they believed to be “today’s [2000’s] most important unreported story.” The remarkable Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) answered in a way that has turned out to be painfully prophetic…

The way we learn to use the Internet in the next few years (or fail to learn) will influence the way our grandchildren govern themselves. Yet only a tiny fraction of the news stories about the impact of the Net focus attention on the ways many to-many communication technology might be changing democracy — and those few stories that are published center on how traditional political parties are using the Web, not on how grassroots movements might be finding a voice…

Every communication technology alters governance and political processes. Candidates and issues are packaged and sold on television by the very same professionals who package and sell other commodities. In the age of mass media, the amount of money a candidate can spend on television advertising is the single most important influence on the electoral success. Now that the Internet has transformed every desktop into a printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly, will enough people learn to make use of this potential? Or will our lack of news, information, and understanding of the Net as a political tool prove insufficient against the centralization of capital, power, and knowledge that modern media also make possible?…

The political power afforded to citizens by the Web is not a technology issue. Technology makes a great democratization of publishing, journalism, public discourse possible, but does not determine whether or not that potential will be realized. Every computer connected to the Net can publish a manifesto, broadcast audio and video eyewitness reports of events in real time, host a virtual community where people argue about those manifestos and broadcasts. Will only the cranks, the enthusiasts, the fringe groups take advantage of this communication platform? Or will many-to-many communication skills become a broader literacy, the way knowing and arguing about the issues of the day in print was the literacy necessary for the American revolution?…

The Scylla and Charybdis of which Howard warned– centralization-by-capital/political power and atomization-into-cacophony (whether via the pollution of manipulation/”fake news” or simple tribalism)– is now all too apparent… even if it’s not at all clear how we sail safely between them.  It’s almost 20 years later– but not too late to heed Howard’s call, which you can read in full at “How Will The Internet Influence Democracy?

* Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google [as Howard’s 2000 insight dawns on him in 2017, source]

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As we try harder, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that financier and “Father of Trusts” Charles R. Flint incorporated The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company as a holding company into which he rolled up manufacturers of record-keeping and measuring systems: Bundy Manufacturing Company, International Time Recording Company, The Tabulating Machine Company, and the Computing Scale Company of America.

Four years later Flint hired Thomas J. Watson, Sr. to run the company; nine years after that, in 1924, Watson organized the formerly disparate units into a single operating company, which he named “International Business Machines,” or as we now know it, IBM.

150px-CTR_Company_Logo source

 

 

“I subscribe to the Fiona Apple school of titles: I wanted people to know exactly what they were getting into”*…

 

sub-titles

 

How many words can you fit in a subtitle? For a slew of modern books, the answer seems to be as many as possible. Just look at Julie Holland’s “Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy,” Erin McHugh’s “Political Suicide: Missteps, Peccadilloes, Bad Calls, Backroom Hijinx, Sordid Pasts, Rotten Breaks, and Just Plain Dumb Mistakes in the Annals of American Politics” and Ryan Grim’s “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.”

Blame a one-word culprit: search. Todd Stocke, senior vice president and editorial director at Sourcebooks, said that subtitle length and content have a lot to do with finding readers through online searches. “It used to be that you could solve merchandising communication on the cover by adding a tagline, blurb or bulleted list,” he said. But now, publishers “pack the keywords and search terms into the subtitle field because in theory that’ll help the book surface more easily.”…

The whole story at “Book subtitles are getting ridiculously long. What is going on?

* W. Kamau Bell

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As we search for optimization, we might spare a thought for Lois Duncan Steinmetz– better known by her pen name, Lois Duncan– she died on this date in 2016.  A journalist, poet, and novelist, she is probably best remembered as a pioneering author of young adult novels, dubbed the “queen of teen thrillers.” (Indeed, in 2014 she was awarded the Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America, alongside James Ellroy.)

220px-Lois_Duncan_Steinmetz_in_a_field_of_daisies_in_Taos,_New_Mexico_(crop) source

We might also send puffing birthday greetings to Wilbert Vere Awdry; he was born on this date in 1911.  Better known as “Reverend W. Awdry,” he was a train enthusiast and children’s author, who married his passions to create Thomas the Tank Engine (the central figure in Awdry’s Railway Series, and the star of a long-running animated children’s show).

220px-The_Rev._W._Awdry source

 

“The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past”*…

 

Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, approached by a Berber on camelback; detail from <i>The Catalan Atlas</i>, attributed to the Majorcan mapmaker Abraham Cresques, 1375

Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, approached by a Berber on camelback; detail from The Catalan Atlas, attributed to the Majorcan mapmaker Abraham Cresques, 1375

 

There is a broad strain in Western thought that has long treated Africa as existing outside of history and progress; it ranges from some of our most famous thinkers to the entertainment that generations of children have grown up with. There are Disney cartoons that depict barely clothed African cannibals merrily stewing their victims in giant pots suspended above pit fires. Among intellectuals there is a wealth of appalling examples. Voltaire said of Africans, “A time will come, without a doubt, when these animals will know how to cultivate the earth well, to embellish it with houses and gardens, and to know the routes of the stars. Time is a must, for everything.” Hegel’s views of Africa were even more sweeping: “What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.” One can hear echoes of such views even today from Western politicians. Donald Trump referred to a number of African nations as “shithole countries” in 2018, and French president Emmanuel Macron said in 2017, “The challenge Africa faces is completely different and much deeper” than those faced by Europe. “It is civilizational.”

It may remain a little-known fact, but Africa has never lacked civilizations, nor has it ever been as cut off from world events as it has been routinely portrayed. Some remarkable new books make this case in scholarly but accessible terms, and they admirably complicate our understanding of Africa’s past and present…

The estimable Howard French provides an introduction to recent scholarship on “Africa’s Lost Kingdoms.”

* Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father

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As we realize that the continent’s “darkness” is our own, we might send respectful birthday greetings to Mangena Mokone; he was born on this date in 1851.  A Wesleyan minister who chafed under the implications of the Church’s (and their colonial partners’) color bar, he left to found the Ethiopian Church in 1892, starting the Ethiopian Movement, which was motivated by the desire for a more African and relevant Christianity, for the restoration of tribal life, and for political and cultural autonomy expressed in the slogan “Africa for the Africans” (and also in the word “Ethiopianism”).

Ethiopianism source

 

Written by LW

June 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“They swore by concrete. They built for eternity.”*…

 

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The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China– the largest concrete structure in the world

 

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete. By the time you are halfway through this article, the volume would fill the Albert Hall and spill out into Hyde Park. In a day it would be almost the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.

The material is the foundation of modern development, putting roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defences against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitise us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

Our blue and green world is becoming greyer by the second. By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one. Unlike the natural world, however, it does not actually grow. Instead, its chief quality is to harden and then degrade, extremely slowly.

All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The cement industry pumps out more than that every two years. But though the problem is bigger than plastic, it is generally seen as less severe. Concrete is not derived from fossil fuels. It is not being found in the stomachs of whales and seagulls. Doctors aren’t discovering traces of it in our blood. Nor do we see it tangled in oak trees or contributing to subterranean fatbergs. We know where we are with concrete. Or to be more precise, we know where it is going: nowhere. Which is exactly why we have come to rely on it…

Solidity is a particularly attractive quality at a time of disorientating change. But – like any good thing in excess – it can create more problems than it solves…

Another entry for the “any solution can become the next problem” file: Jonathan Watts on the many ways that concrete’s benefits can mask enormous dangers to the planet, to human health – and to culture itself: “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth.”

* Gunter Grass

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As we muse on materials, we might recall that it was on this date in 1844 that Linus Yale patented the “safe door lock” (U.S. patent no. 3,630), the first modern “pin tumbler lock.”

yale-door-lock-patent-1844 source

 

Written by LW

June 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

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