Object: matrimony.

March 21st, 2014

16 Ways to Find Love in the Personal Ads (in 1900):

"Wanted: wife. Farmer's daughter preferred, willing to marry poor man. Must be good girl, good-looking, weight 100 or under, no grafters."

[Via The Morning News]

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THUNDEROUS, SUSTAINED APPLAUSE

February 28th, 2014

Maciej Ceglowski's Webstock presentation on Our Comrade The Electron draws lessons for modern technologists from the life of Lev Sergeyevich Termen, the inventor of – among other things – the theremin:

Termen was just what Lenin needed: a Soviet inventor with an electrical gizmo that would dazzle and amaze the masses, and help sell the suspicious countryside on electrification. He gave Termen a permanent rail pass, encouraging him to take his show on the road all over the Soviet Union.

When Lenin died a few years later, Termen sent urgent word that Lenin's body be immediately frozen. He had an idea for how to bring him back to life, but it required putting the body on ice. He was devastated to learn that Lenin's brain had already been taken out and pickled in alcohol, and his body embalmed for public viewing.

Given Termen's track record of technical achievement, it's probably a good thing he didn't get a chance at making zombie Lenin.

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' … the most lunatic thing I've seen on a piece of silicon since I found out the MIPS architecture had runtime-mutable endianness.'

February 17th, 2014

I bookmarked Mike Hoye's Citation Needed weeks ago but never got round to posting a link here. Unfortunately I've forgotten where I came across the link to this piece in the first place, but I can't let that stop me. If this is the sort of thing you like, you'll enjoy this a lot:

"Should array indices start at 0 or 1? My compromise of 0.5 was rejected without, I thought, proper consideration." – Stan Kelly-Bootle

Sometimes somebody says something to me, like a whisper of a hint of an echo of something half-forgotten, and it lands on me like an invocation. The mania sets in, and it isn't enough to believe; I have to know.

I've spent far more effort than is sensible this month crawling down a rabbit hole disguised, as they often are, as a straightforward question: why do programmers start counting at zero?

Now: stop right there. By now your peripheral vision should have convinced you that this is a long article, and I'm not here to waste your time. But if you're gearing up to tell me about efficient pointer arithmetic or binary addition or something, you're wrong. You don't think you're wrong and that's part of a much larger problem, but you're still wrong. [...]

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Spin, spin, spin…

February 12th, 2014

From the [pen|keyboard] of The Yorkshire Ranter: Dave from PR in the French Revolution

Being a Salmagundi from the Talking-Pointes of the late Sieur Davide du Camerone, Gentleman of the Privy and Counsellier upon the Fourth Estate to his most Catholic Majesty, the late King Louis XVI

An unexpectedly large forecast error in the Budget leads Finance Minister Necker to call an emergency Estates-General:

We’re all in this together. Only a balanced parliament reflecting the national consensus to deal with the debt can keep us from ending up like Spain. M. Colbert didn’t fix the roof while the sun was shining, but His Majesty is determined to get our finances in surplus by 1792. That’s on a rolling five-year cash basis excluding interventions in North America and royal mistresses.

[…]

[FX: Applause]

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Sailing on…

January 5th, 2014

Adam Gopnik puts doom-laden talk of parallels between 1914 and 2014 in perspective by reflecting upon the impossibility of knowing whether we're travelling on board the Olympic or the Titanic.

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Coming to you via Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_9) AppleWebKit/537.71 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/7.0 Safari/537.71

November 9th, 2013

This history of the browser user-agent string evokes times past, when life on the World Wide Web was simpler, yet user-agent strings got more and more complicated.

The pity of it is that my favourite web browser1 ever never got popular enough for anyone else to want to pretend to be it.

[Via The Tao Of Mac]

  1. I do wish Omni Group had kept actively developing OmniWeb. You can still download it, but they stopped doing anything with it beyond maintenance releases years ago. Even so, if they'd ever fixed some weird shortcomings in the program's Applescript support I'd probably still be using it as my main web browser to this day.

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Love in a cold climate

September 18th, 2013

The Wellcome Library blog tells the tale of the Common Cold Unit:

Volunteers were kept in strict isolation from the outside world and from others taking part in the trial. But as one CCU press release puts it, 'isolation is not as bad as it seems. All the flats are connected by phone so you can talk to that smashing blonde in the next flat'.

Another volunteer information sheet in the collection warns that 'chatting up other volunteers in a different flat can only be by telephone, or at a very long range outside.' Romances did bloom despite the isolation and blocked noses; on his ninth visit to the unit, one guitar-strumming volunteer wooed a neighbouring oboist by playing duets at 30 feet. Love in a cold climate.

I'm slightly surprised that nobody ever exploited such comedic gold for a sitcom. Probably made by the folks behind On the Buses or Mind Your Language or Man About the House.1

  1. I don't know why, but something about the premise just screams 'early 1970s sitcom' to me.

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The sound of a point being missed (by quite some distance)

September 17th, 2013

Notes from scholar and social critic W W Crotch, written in 1933 for the New Statesman, on his occasional encounters over the preceding decade or so with the new German chancellor. No huge surprises as regards what a misfit Hitler was before he ascended to the national stage, but I couldn't help but boggle at this tale of what might just be the most woefully inadequate headline of the 20th century:

One thing that struck me about Hitler was his extreme abstemiousness. He ate every night a dish of vegetables, and mineral water was his only drink. He never smoked. This reminds me of an amusing incident when Hitler became Chancellor. The German vegetarians have a central organ of their league, and this paper came out with flaming headlines:

FIRST GREAT VICTORY OF GERMAN VEGETARIANS. HITLER BECOMES CHANCELLOR.

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

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The double bill from Hell

August 16th, 2013

My favourite fact I learned today, from a MetaFilter thread prompted by the release of an English-subtitled trailer for Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises [Previously.]:

[...] Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro were released together as a double feature. Target audience: ?

posted by The Tensor at 5:39 PM on August 15

I can't imagine any way to sit through that pairing without ending up a sobbing wreck. One poster said that Totoro played second, possibly in an attempt to lift the audience's spirits after Fireflies had stomped them into the ground. Me, I doubt that even the appearance of a real-life catbus could make me feel good in the wake of the gut-punch Grave of the Fireflies delivers.

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Jaws: The Previous Generation

August 14th, 2013

Ever since seeing Jaws back in 1976, I'd taken it as read that Americans had always been afraid of shark attacks. Apparently this was not the case:

In 1891, Herman Oelrichs, a multimillionaire with a thirst for adventure, made a peculiar offer in the pages of the New York Sun. Oelrichs said he would provide a reward of five hundred dollars for "such proof as a court would accept that in temperate waters even one man, woman, or child, while alive, was ever attacked by a shark." Fond of diving off yachts to swim with whatever creatures might be lurking in the deep, Oelrichs conducted an annual "shark-chasing" swim off the coast of New Jersey's most fashionable resorts. Like his friend Theodore Roosevelt, Oelrichs believed sharks were merely part of a larger ecosystem that had been conquered by science and American enthusiasm. In a time when men could vacation in Africa and come back with hunting trophies twice their size, how could we have anything to fear from the natural world? [...]

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BUGGER

August 10th, 2013

Adam Curtis on the awful truth about spies:

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they – and all the reactions to them – had one enormous assumption at their heart.

That the spies know what they are doing.

It is a belief that has been central to much of the journalism about spying and spies over the past fifty years. That the anonymous figures in the intelligence world have a dark omniscience. That they know what's going on in ways that we don't.

It doesn't matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do.

But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different. [...]

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How We Got To Now

August 6th, 2013

Steven Johnson is working on a TV series, a six-part PBS series to be distributed outside the USA by BBC Worldwide1 called How We Got To Now:

Alongside the bizarre coincidences, intense rivalries, terrible failures and moments of heroic achievement that made theories into realities, HOW WE GOT TO NOW uses historical precedents and modern-day analogies to explain why it's not always the smartest person in the room who has the best idea. From frozen foods entrepreneur Clarence Birdseye to Internet visionary Tim Berners-Lee, Hollywood "Golden Age" actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr to mother of radioactivity Marie Curie, and from Thomas Alva Edison to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, the series shows how the best ideas can come from surprising places (and take years to shape), as well as how amateurs can revolutionize specialist fields, and why patents are sometimes a big idea's worst enemy.

[Via stevenberlinjohnson.com]

  1. So with any luck it'll turn up on the BBC eventually…

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Actual European 'Discoveries'

July 29th, 2013

Actual European Discoveries: land unknown by humans before the Age of Exploration

Discoveries map (excerpt)

Every Columbus Day, we're reminded of the difference between discovery and "discovery" – and rightly so. But let's not sell Europe short; after all, European explorers found plenty of diminutive islands that no human had ever seen before, along with extravagant amounts of ice and snow. Just the islands alone add up to more than 0.14% of the world's total land area, and today they're home to more people than live in all of Connecticut!

All sarcasm aside, it's worth remembering that almost everywhere Europeans went, they were met by existing inhabitants. [...]

[Via radicalcartography]

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Beware the carrier of the tortoise

July 27th, 2013

Islam's Medieval Underworld:

The year is – let us say – 1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects' robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand – and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. [...]

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Austerity

June 16th, 2013

Mark Blyth does a marvelous job of dismantling the notions that Austerity is Good For Us and It's What We All Deserve for Being Spendthrift in Austerity – The History of a Dangerous Idea:

[Via Memex 1.1]

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German snipers had had him in their sights but, out of pity for this madman, had not fired.

June 14th, 2013

The Economist's obituary for the D-Day piper, published upon his passing away in 2010 at the age of 88, is worth reading right to the very last line:

ANY reasonable observer might have thought Bill Millin was unarmed as he jumped off the landing ramp at Sword Beach, in Normandy, on June 6th 1944. Unlike his colleagues, the pale 21-year-old held no rifle in his hands. Of course, in full Highland rig as he was, he had his trusty skean dhu, his little dirk, tucked in his right sock. But that was soon under three feet of water as he waded ashore, a weary soldier still smelling his own vomit from a night in a close boat on a choppy sea, and whose kilt in the freezing water was floating prettily round him like a ballerina's skirt.

But Mr Millin was not unarmed; far from it. He held his pipes, high over his head at first to keep them from the wet (for while whisky was said to be good for the bag, salt water wasn't), then cradled in his arms to play. And bagpipes, by long tradition, counted as instruments of war. An English judge had said so after the Scots' great defeat at Culloden in 1746; a piper was a fighter like the rest, and his music was his weapon. [...]

[Via Electrolite]

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Infinite loop

March 19th, 2013

A slice of prime early 1980s computing nostalgia, served up for British computer geeks of a certain age by The Register:

They would, Clive Sinclair claimed on 23 April 1982, revolutionise home computer storage. Significantly cheaper than the established 5.25-inch and emerging 3.5-inch floppy drives of the time – though not as capacious or as fast to serve up files – 'Uncle' Clive's new toy would "change the face of personal computing", Sinclair Research's advertising puffed.

Yet this "remarkable breakthrough at a remarkable price" would take more than 18 months more to come to market. In the meantime, it would become a byword for delays and disappointment – and this in an era when almost every promised product arrived late.

Sinclair's revolutionary product was the ZX Microdrive. This is its story. [...]

It was a pity that Sinclair botched the ZX Microdrive so badly: it was a tragedy that the QL relied upon Microdrives.1 I tell you, with floppy disk drives, a decent keyboard and a finished operating system, the QL could've been a contender.

  1. And an inadequate keyboard. And firmware that required more space on the built-in ROM than could fit on that ROM, leaving early users with no choice but to to plug in an external ROM card holding the remainder of their computer's operating system.

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I like his point about how the British PM is a total Mary Sue.

December 31st, 2012

Plot Holes in World War II:

[There are...] some shows that go completely beyond the pale of enjoyability, until they become nothing more than overwritten collections of tropes impossible to watch without groaning.

I think the worst offender here is the History Channel and all their programs on the so-called "World War II".

Let's start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn't look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn't get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn't even mind the lack of originality if they weren't so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we're supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? [...]

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he's not only Prime Minister, he's not only a brilliant military commander, he's not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he's also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he's supposed to be the hero, but it's not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human. [...]

There's an excellent comment thread at the Straight Dope where users expand upon the original thesis:

davidm

You want to talk about lazy writing? You want to talk about deus ex machina? The whole thing gets suddenly cut short by a new mad scientist invention that is orders of magnitude bigger than anything used up to that point. Why even bother with any fighting to begin with? Just pull a crazy ass big bomb out of your butt and obliterate the other side.

They more or less ended the European part of it with an exciting large scale invasion and takeover, then decided to abruptly end the Pacific part of it with some bad science fiction.

[Via More Words, Deeper Hole]

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Holland vs the Netherlands

December 24th, 2012

It turns out that differentiating between Holland and the Netherlands is a lot more complicated than I'd appreciated:

[Via iamcal.com]

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Mad. Not Mad.

November 23rd, 2012

Roy Greenslade has fond memories of time spent at London's Speakers' Corner:

By far the most memorable of the speakers was Donald Soper, the Methodist preacher, because he didn't rant and he dealt so equably with the hecklers. Even those who disagreed with his message seemed to respect him.

Some time later I heard him tell an anecdote about the time a heckler defeated him.

A gesticulating, anxious man kept screaming: "You're mad". After a dozen such interruptions, Soper finally addressed him: "Look friend, this is getting you nowhere. It seems to me as if you might be mad yourself."

The man replied: "No I'm not, and I can prove it." He ran forward to the soap box and, with a cackling laugh, handed Soper a piece of paper.

After reading it, Soper smilingly handed it back and told the crowd: "I can confirm that this man is not mad. That letter, dated yesterday, is his official discharge from a mental institution."

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