(Roughly) Daily

“Food is culture, habit, craving, and identity”*…

 

Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilization. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.

Fagan has to fish deeply sometimes and into unexpected places. He investigates the ears of several-thousand-year-old men buried in what is now Israel, which show damage consistent with diving in cold, deep water. He uncovers the giant middens of mollusc shells that appear all over the planet, because though molluscs yield a tiny amount of protein — they are ‘small meat packages sealed in heavy inedible shells’ — they are easy to catch. ‘To knock a limpet from a rock,’ wrote Darwin, ‘does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind.’ Darwin was wrong: the ability to subsist on shellfish allowed humans to live through the lean seasons. It enabled survival.

Fishing, writes Fagan, “has created the modern world”…

The ways in which fishing– more than agriculture and husbandry– were central to the rise of civilization, from social organization to technology: “Holy mackerel! Civilization begins with fishing.”

* Jonathan Safran Foer

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As we spread our nets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

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Written by LW

December 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is reality worth?”*…

 

It is tempting to believe that we live in a time uniquely saturated with images. And indeed, the numbers are staggering: Instagrammers upload about 95 million photos and videos every day. A quarter of Americans use the app, and the vast majority of them are under 40. Because Instagram skews so much younger than Facebook or Twitter, it is where “tastemakers” and “influencers” now live online, and where their audiences spend hours each day making and absorbing visual content. But so much of what seems bleeding edge may well be old hat; the trends, behaviors, and modes of perception and living that so many op-ed columnists and TED-talk gurus attribute to smartphones and other technological advances are rooted in the much older aesthetic of the picturesque.

Wealthy eighteenth-century English travelers… used technology to mediate and pictorialize their experiences of nature just as Instagrammers today hold up their phones and deliberate over filters…

The pre-history of “influencers” and their images: “The Instagrammable Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”

* Marty Rubin

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As we watch what’s old become new again, we might recall that it was on this date in 1942 that a team of scientists led by Enrico Fermi, working inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, achieved the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction… laying the foundation for the atomic bomb and later, nuclear power generation.

“…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
– Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

Illustration depicting the scene on Dec. 2, 1942 (Photo copyright of Chicago Historical Society)

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Indeed, exactly 15 years later, on this date in 1957, the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, reached criticality; the first power was produced 16 days later, after engineers integrated the generator into the distribution grid of Duquesne Light Company.

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Written by LW

December 2, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them”*…

 

People think of reading as the introvert’s hobby: A quiet activity for a person who likes quiet, save for the voices in their head. But in the 5,000 or so years humans have been writing, reading as we conceive it, an asocial solo activity with a book, is a relatively new form of leisure.

For centuries, Europeans who could read did so aloud. The ancient Greeks read their texts aloud. So did the monks of Europe’s dark ages. But by the 17th century, reading society in Europe had changed drastically. Text technologies, like moveable type, and the rise of vernacular writing helped usher in the practice we cherish today: taking in words without saying them aloud, letting them build a world in our heads…

Read the full story of how “The beginning of silent reading changed Westerners’ interior life.”

* Lemony Snicket [Daniel Handler], Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid

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As we try not to move our lips, we might gratefully recall that it was on this date in 1971 that Michael Hart, now known as the father of e-books, inaugurated Project Gutenberg, issuing the Declaration of Independence.  The service now offers over 54,000 free eBooks– epub books, free kindle books, and plain text, available to download or to read online.  Mostly classics (that are out of copyright), the collection contains much of the world’s great literature, all digitized and diligently proofread with the help of thousands of volunteers.

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Written by LW

December 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves”*…

 

“The Triumph of Venus,” by Francis Boucher (1740).

We’re all human—so despite the vagaries of cultural context, might there exist a universal beauty that overrides the where and when? Might there be unchanging features of human nature that condition our creative choices, a timeless melody that guides the improvisations of the everyday? There has been a perpetual quest for such universals, because of their value as a North Star that could guide our creative choices…

Scientists have struggled to find universals that permanently link our species. Although we come to the table with biological predispositions, a million years of bending, breaking and blending have diversified our species’ preferences. We are the products not only of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution. Although the idea of universal beauty is appealing, it doesn’t capture the multiplicity of creation across place and time. Beauty is not genetically preordained. As we explore creatively, we expand aesthetically: everything new that we view as beautiful adds to the word’s definition. That is why we sometimes look at great works of the past and find them unappealing, while we find splendor in objects that previous generations wouldn’t have accepted. What characterizes us as a species is not a particular aesthetic preference, but the multiple, meandering paths of creativity itself…

Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman offer an explanation as to “Why Beauty Is Not Universal.”

* “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”  –  David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste and Other Essays

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As we examine aesthetics, we might spare a thought for aesthete-in-chief Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde; the novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and master of the bon mot died on this date in 1900.

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

(…more of Wilde’s wisdom at Wikiquote)

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Written by LW

November 30, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The peppery-sweet perfume of pinks”*…

 

Think of the early American pencil industry as the Wild West of office supplies.

Starting in the 1820s, pencil manufacturers popped up across the United States in an effort to secure their own piece of a booming, million-dollar business—quickly followed by a flurry of innovations and inventions. “A lot of people were developing similar things from similar ideas in different places, not knowing that somebody else had already done it,” notes Caroline Weaver, owner of Manhattan pencil shop CW Pencil Enterprise. “There was an enormous amount of competition.”

Today’s office supply industry is not characterized by the same sort of frenzied lawlessness. But we still owe the look of our writing instruments to the marketing decisions of those early 19th- and 20th-century pencil mavericks trying to stand out from the crowd.

Take the eraser. In 1770, a British engineer named Edward Nairne produced the first eraser using a South American tree rubber known as caoutchouc. English chemist Joseph Priestley was quite impressed with the results, dubbing the substance “rubber” that same year, after its ability to rub out black marks from pencil lead…

Explore the aesthetics of eradication: “Why Erasers Are Pink.”

* Kate Atkinson

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As we reach for the rubber, we might might send a hand-made birthday card to William Joseph “Dard” Hunter; he was born on this date in 1883.  Active in the Arts and Crafts movement, he was an American authority on printing, paper, and papermaking, especially by hand, using the tools and craft of four centuries prior.  Hunter produced two hundred copies of his book Old Papermaking, preparing every aspect of the book himself: he wrote the text, designed and cast the type, did the typesetting, handmade the paper, and printed and bound the book.  A display at the Smithsonian Institution that appeared with his work read, “In the entire history of printing, these are the first books to have been made in their entirety by the labors of one man.” He later wrote Papermarking by Hand in America, a larger, but more conventional undertaking.

Dard Hunter’s self-portrait in watermark

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Written by LW

November 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little”*…

 

When I published Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think in February 2012, I included about 80 charts in the back of the book showing very strong evidence that the world is getting better. Over the last five years, this trend has continued and accelerated.

This page includes charts and graphs that you can share with friends and family to change their mindset. We truly are living in the most exciting time to be alive…

In “answer” to yesterday’s excursion into dystopia, a collection of evidence from Peter Diamandis that things are on the upswing: “Evidence of Abundance.”

* Franklin D. Roosevelt

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As we look on the bright side, we might recall that it was on this date in 1968 that Jimi Hendrix played Philharmonic Hall in New York.  The concert, “An Electronic Thanksgiving,” was originally planned for Carnegie Hall, but the managers there got cold feet, fearful of a rowdy audience.  Promoter Ron Delsener scrambled:

I had to convince Louise Homer, who was the Director of Philharmonic Hall,
that I had to ‘marry’ Rock and Roll to classical music (eclectic music). I then moved the event to Philharmonic Hall… I had to do everything to convince them. I had to hire The New York Brass Quintet and a harpsichord virtuoso (therefore, an eclectic evening). Both would play during the first half of the program. They would be joined by one or two of Jimi’s musicians on several selections.

I informed Michael Jeffery, as well as the attorney, Stevens Weiss, that Noel and/or Mitch must play during the first half of the program for several numbers with a classical group. Naturally, the show went on sale, sold out, and no one wanted to play the first half of the program with the classical musicians.

I begged Mitch Mitchell to please sit in and ‘fake it’ as best as he could, which he did much to the delight of the audience. To Mitch, it was a ‘goof,’ to me it was a lifesaver. To the ushers at Philharmonic Hall, it was a frightening experience because everyone stood in front of their seats for the entire show and clogged all the aisles leading to the stage. [source]

 

Written by LW

November 28, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us”*…

 

On the occasion of Cyber Monday…

Science fiction writer William Gibson coined the phrase, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” It’s a well-known and oft-repeated line.

I’m proposing a slight variation, or perhaps a corollary principle: The dystopia is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed…

From Michael Sacasas, a run-down of (some of) the signs of trouble in our times: “The Dystopia Is Already Here.”

Lest we descend into despair, we should remember that there are things we can do to stem the dark tide…  we just have to do them.  For example, we can use the resources of groups like Common Sense Media; we can support the work of EFF and other privacy and rights groups; we can switch to the tools of open makers like Mozilla; we can contribute to open knowledge resources like the Internet Archive and Wikimedia

Oh, and just in case our resolve begins to slip, we can revisit Sacasas’ page, as he’s keeping it open add to the list of grim symptoms as more emerge…

* Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

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As we hang onto the baby as we ditch the bath water, we might spare a thought for Fernand Braudel; he died on this date in 1985.  An accomplished historian, he is probably best remembered as the leader of the Annales School of historiography.  His scholarship focused on three main projects: The Mediterranean (1923–49, then 1949–66), the remarkable Civilization and Capitalism (1955–79), and the unfinished Identity of France (1970–85)– in all of which he set the bar for Annales practitioners by using deep and comprehensive research into the minute particulars of everyday life to illustrate broad, sweeping socio-economic trends.

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Written by LW

November 27, 2017 at 1:01 am

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