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“Total annihilation has a way of sharpening people’s minds”*…

 

War of the Worlds

 

HG Wells was the great modern prophet of apocalypse…

In five fecund years, from 1895 to 1900, he wrote 12 books, including the ‘scientific romances’ that made his name and laid the foundations of modern science fiction — The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man. He paved the way for so much of what came after — the sci-fi of Huxley, Orwell, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, JG Ballard and Michael Crichton, and his books have inspired over 30 films, with The Invisible Man set for another remake this year…

His books — both fiction and non-fiction — are tales of apocalypse, which in the ancient Greek etymology means ‘the unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling’.

What you meet in Wells’ books, again and again, is the violent uncovering of the new, the ripping back of the lace curtain of Victorian customs. Like Ballard, Wells had a sense of how suddenly and utterly things can change, how long familiar and ingrained customs can disappear in a moment. Victorian England must have seemed like it would stay the same forever and ever. And then, suddenly, Queen Victoria is removed ‘like a great paperweight’, and everything is in flux.

Australians are learning that today — how everything we take for granted — homes, food supplies, electricity, water, clean air, even law and order — can be taken from one in an instant. Likewise, The War of the Worlds gave complacent imperial Victorians a sudden sense what it’s like to be conquered and humiliated, to be scrabbling for survival. ‘I felt a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel’…

What can he teach us about our present moment? How can we survive and endure the apocalyptic unravelling of hydrocarbon capitalism, which is what (I suggest) we vividly see happening today. The most important lessons he gave us are (1) take the Long View and (2) don’t turn away from technological innovation, however dangerous and unsettling it is…

Jules Evans (on a return visit, having supplied yesterday’s subject) explains: “What HG Wells can teach us about surviving apocalypse.”

* Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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As we batten down the hatches, we might recall that it was on this date in 749 that a devastating earthquake struck parts of Palestine and the Transjordan, epicentered in Galilee.  The cities of Tiberias, Beit She’an, Hippos, and Pella were largely destroyed, while many other cities across the Levant were heavily damaged; the casualties numbered in the tens of thousands.

earthquake

Scythopolis (Beit She’an) was one of the cities destroyed in the earthquake of 749

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“Hands have their own language”*…

 

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Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

 

Most body parts come alone or in pairs. We have one nose, one tongue, and one navel. We sport two eyes, two knees, two feet, and so on. Fingers are a glaring exception—we’ve got a party of five on each side. This presents difficulties. When we want to single one out from the group—to specify which finger we slammed in the door, for instance—what do we do? We name them, naturally. But how?

This is a uniquely human problem. Pentadactyly—the condition of having five fingers—is pervasive in the biological world, but we are the only species that has the capacity (or occasion) to talk about those fingers. The problem is not just that we have five of them, but that they are so vexingly similar: they differ slightly in size and dexterity, but all have that pucker-knuckled, nail-capped look. How have people in different times and places solved this problem? How have they named the members of this confusable quintet? Answering this question offers a tour of the inventiveness of the human mind…

Our names for our fingers show a surprising depth of cultural variation—and similarity: “Where Do Finger Names Come From?

* Simon Van Booy

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As we dub our digits, we might send carefully-timed birthday greetings to a man with very accomplished fingers, Abraham-Louis Breguet; he was born on this date in 1747.  The leading horologist of his day, he introduced a number of formative innovation into watch- and clock-making.  He built the first gong spring (which decreased the size of repeater watches) and the first anti-shock device or “pare-chute” (which improved the reliability of his watches while making them less fragile).  He sold the first modern carriage clock to Napoleon Bonaparte, and created the first “tact watch” by which time could be read by touch.  And finally– and most impactfully– he built the first tourbillon (the self-winding mechanism that introduced the “perpétuelle” watch), which he patented in 1801.

220px-Abraham_Louis_Breguet_02 source

 

 

Written by LW

January 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”*…

 

Generations

 

“The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs”  – Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

As recently as the late 1980s, most Americans thought gay sex was not only immoral but also something that ought to be illegal. Yet by 2015, when the Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, there were only faint murmurs of protest. Today two-thirds of Americans support it, and even those who frown on it make no serious effort to criminalise it.

This surge in tolerance illustrates how fast public opinion can shift. The change occurred because two trends reinforced each other. First, many socially conservative old people have died, and their places in the polling samples have been taken by liberal millennials. In addition, people have changed their minds. Support for gay marriage has risen by some 30 percentage points within each generation since 2004, from 20% to 49% among those born in 1928-45 and from 45% to 78% among those born after 1980.

However, this shift in opinion makes gay marriage an exception among political issues. Since 1972 the University of Chicago has run a General Social Survey every year or two, which asks Americans their views on a wide range of topics. Over time, public opinion has grown more liberal. But this is mostly the result of generational replacement, not of changes of heart.

For example, in 1972, 42% of Americans said communist books should be banned from public libraries. Views varied widely by age: 55% of people born before 1928 (who were 45 or older at the time) supported a ban, compared with 37% of people aged 27-44 and just 25% of those 26 or younger. Today, only a quarter of Americans favour this policy. However, within each of these birth cohorts, views today are almost identical to those from 47 years ago. The change was caused entirely by the share of respondents born before 1928 falling from 49% to nil, and that of millennials—who were not born until at least 1981, and staunchly oppose such a ban—rising from zero to 36%.

Not every issue is as extreme as these two. But on six of the eight questions we examined—all save gay marriage and marijuana legalisation—demographic shifts accounted for a bigger share of overall movement in public opinion than changes in beliefs within cohorts. On average, their impact was about twice as large.

Social activists devote themselves to changing people’s views, and sometimes succeed. In general, however, battles for hearts and minds are won by grinding attrition more often than by rapid conquest.

The Economist illustrates the way in which generational change is the driver of changes in public opinion: “Societies change their minds faster than people do.”

Paul Graham has tips on how to anticipate and navigate, even to lead, this change: “What you can’t say.”

“The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research. It is upon their existence more than upon that of revolutions that the notion of normal science depends… though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

* The Who

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As we go with the flow, we might send responsive birthday greetings to John Broadus Watson; he was born on this date in 1878.  A psychologist inspired by the (then recent) work of Ivan Pavlov, Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism, most dramatically through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, at Columbia University in 1913.  Watson studied the biology, physiology, and behavior of animals, viewing them as extremely complex machines that responded to situations according to their “wiring,” or nerve pathways, which were conditioned by experience.  When he continued with studies of the behavior of children, his conclusion was that humans, while more complicated than animals, operated on the same principles; he was particularly interested in the conditioning of emotions.  Watson’s behaviorism dominated psychology in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s (and got a second wind with the ascendence of B.F. Skinner).

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Ironically, it is also the birthday (1886) of one of Watson’s contemporaries and antagonists, Edwin Ray Guthrie.  Guthrie was also a behaviorist, but argued against of Watson’s theory of classical conditioning and Skinner’s related theory of operant conditioning.  Guthie’s focus was the psychology of learning and the role that association plays.  In his Law of Contiguity, he held that “a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement, will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” He held that all learning is based on a stimulus- response association; movements are small stimulus- response combinations.  These movements make up an act.  A learned behavior is a series of movements, and it takes time for the movements to develop into an act. Which is to say that he believed that learning is incremental, and that many acquired behaviors involve repetition of movements– because what is learned are movements, not behaviors.

200px-Edwin_Ray_Guthrie source

 

“Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?”*…

 

Magician hat

The Magician, by Claude Burdele, 1751

 

A telling aspect of the magic hat, as a physical thing, is that its form is often mundane, appearing in the shape of a traveler’s or laborer’s hat, such as a cap or a simple fedora. Described as a “coarse felt hat” in an English play about a wishing hat published at the turn of the seventeenth century, and in a nineteenth-century Grimm’s fairy tale as a “little old worn-out hat” that “has strange properties,” it is similarly defined in many stories.

The magic hat’s association with the commonplace has continued into modern times. For example, the top hat used in the magician’s show, though linked with the wealthy, was a style worn by many men and women who lived on the lowest rungs of the class system. The Harry Potter Sorting Hat, so probing that “there’s nothing hidden in your head / The Sorting Hat can’t see,” was an old, bent “pointed wizard’s hat” that was “patched…frayed and extremely dirty.” The sacred hat, too, in many cultures has been based, like the magic hat, on the commonplace…

On wishing hats, top hats, the Helm of Death, and other mystical headgear: “The Strange Properties and Histories of the Magic Hat.”

* Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

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As we contemplate caps, we might send mighty birthday greetings to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons of Themyscira and the mother of Wonder Woman.  She was created by Zeus (in answer to the mischief sown by Ares) on this date in an unnumbered (and unknown) year in antiquity (in the fictional DC Comics universe of which she is a part).

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Hippolyta as depicted in her first appearance, in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941)

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Written by LW

January 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Cuisine is when things taste like themselves”*…

cuisine

 

“The destiny of nations,” wrote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, an 18th-century French gastronome, “depends on how they nourish themselves.” Today a nation’s stature depends on how well it nourishes the rest of the world, too. For proof of this, consider the rise of culinary diplomacy. In 2012 America’s State Department launched a “chef corps” tasked with promoting American cuisine abroad. Thailand’s government sends chefs overseas to peddle pad Thai and massaman curry through its Global Thai programme. South Korea pursues its own brand of “kimchi diplomacy”.

But which country’s cuisine is at the top of the global food chain? A new paper by Joel Waldfogel of the University of Minnesota provides an answer. Using restaurant listings from TripAdvisor, a travel-review website, and sales figures from Euromonitor, a market-research firm, Mr Waldfogel estimates world “trade” in cuisines for 52 countries. Whereas traditional trade is measured based on the value of goods and services that flow across a country’s borders, the author’s estimates of culinary exchange are based on the value of food found on restaurant tables. Domestic consumption of foreign cuisine is treated as an “import”, whereas foreign consumption of domestic cuisine is treated as an “export”. The balance determines which countries have the greatest influence on the world’s palate.

The results make grim reading for America’s McDonald’s-munching, tariff-touting president. The United States is the world’s biggest net importer of cuisine, gobbling down $55bn more in foreign dishes than the rest of the world eats in American fare (when fast food is excluded, this figure balloons to $134bn). China comes next, with a $52bn dietary deficit; Brazil and Britain have shortfalls worth around $34bn and $30bn respectively. Italy, meanwhile, ranks as the world’s biggest exporter of edibles. The world’s appetite for pasta and pizza, plus Italians’ relative indifference to other cuisines, give the country a $168bn supper surplus. Japan, Turkey and Mexico also boast robust surpluses [see chart above].

Mr Waldfogel does not account for culinary hybrids such as the cronut—a cross between a croissant and a doughnut—or Tex-Mex. Nor does he consider authenticity; few Neapolitans would consider Domino’s Pizza a real taste of home. Despite this, some cuisines clearly have a bigger worldwide appeal than others. Foodies scoffing spring rolls in San Francisco or cheeseburgers in Chongqing should give thanks to globalisation. A policy of culinary mercantilism could make dining out very dull indeed…

Which countries dominate the world’s dinner tables?

* Curnonsky (Maurice Edmond Sailland; c.f. almanac entry here)

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As we contemplate culinary culture, we might send carefully-peeled birthday greetings to John Richard (“Jack” or “J.R.”) Simplot; he was born on this date in 1909.  An Idaho-based agribusiness entrepreneur, Simplot, J.R.’s eponymous company, became the largest shipper of fresh potatoes by the outbreak of World War II.  In 1967, Simplot and McDonald’s impressario Ray Kroc agreed by handshake that the Simplot Company would provide frozen french fries to the restaurant chain; by 2005, Simplot was supplying the (by then vastly larger) Golden Arches with half of its french fries and hash browns.  Simplot also provided seed capital for Micron Technologies, a successful computer memory chip company.

J._R._Simplot source

 

 

Written by LW

January 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Progress is the attraction that moves humanity”*…

 

Steam Engine Crushing A Wall, 1770.

A 1770 engraving of a steam engine crushing a wall

 

How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Many bookshelves are full of learned tomes by historians, economists, political philosophers and other erudite scholars with endless explanations. One way of looking at the question is by examining something basic, and arguably essential: the emergence of a belief in the usefulness of progress.

Such a belief may seem self-evident today, but most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so…

Progress: humans invented it—and not that long ago.  Joel Mokyr unpacks its cultural history, and explains why “Progress Isn’t Natural.”

See also J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress- an Inquiry into its Origins and Growth and Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

* Marcus Garvey

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As we deliberate on direction, 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, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Being a woman is a terribly difficult trade since it consists principally of dealings with men”*…

 

Woman Stands in Empty Classroom with Note

 

Alter the status of women and you have affected all the most intimate and significant nodes of life: the relation of wife to husband, mother to child, sister to sibling, daughter to parents, worker to coworkers, and employee to employer (or vice versa). This change in women’s standing that happened what seems like yesterday, and is still happening today at an accelerated rate, is the most profound revolution that can take place in a society. It takes and gives energy to all the other reforms of our time. After all, the civil rights movement involves black women, the LGBTQ movement concerns lesbians, the disability rights movement affects disabled women, health care reforms implicate women care-givers and the objects of their care. Raise any part of our society to a more just condition and justice for women is centrally at issue. It is the reform of all reforms and the basic measure of our progress…

The inestimable Gary Wills recounts “My Education in the Patriarchy.”

For a powerful way to address this opportunity globally, consider Landesa.

* Joseph Conrad, Chance

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As we think inclusively, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that journalist Nellie Bly began her 72-day trip around the world.

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time.  A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she boarded the steamer Augusta Victoria, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

Bly traveled through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, having used steamships and existing railway lines, Bly was back in New York; she beat Phileas Fogg‘s time by almost 8 days.

Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Caption on the original photo reads: “Nellie Bly, The New York WORLD’S correspondent who placed a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.”

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Written by LW

November 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

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