August 4th, 2014
Chris Brooke has been reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark's book on the outbreak of the First World War.
[What…] I was repeatedly struck by were the sheer number of quite extraordinarily belligerent actors that I encountered along the way, and I ended up a bit surprised that continental war didn't break out much earlier than 1914. […]
[French diplomat…] Paul Cambon takes the prize:
Underpinning Cambon's exalted sense of self was the belief – shared by many of the senior ambassadors – that one did not merely represent France, one personified it. Though he was ambassador in London from 1898 until 1920, Cambon spoke not a word of English. During his meetings with [Foreign Secretary] Edward Grey (who spoke no French), he insisted every utterance be translated into French, including easily recognized words such as 'yes'. He firmly believed – like many members of the French elite – that French was the only language capable of articulating rational thought and he objected to the foundation of French schools in Britain on the eccentric grounds that French people raised in Britain tended to end up mentally retarded.
July 11th, 2014
I'm indebted to Chris Williams for bringing to everyone's attention that today is the feast day for Saint Olga of Kiev:
Princess Olga was the wife of Igor of Kiev, who was killed by the Drevlians. At the time of her husband's death, their son Svyatoslav was three years old, making Olga the official ruler of Kievan Rus until he reached adulthood. The Drevlians wanted Olga to marry their Prince Mal, making him the ruler of Kievan Rus, but Olga was determined to remain in power and preserve it for her son.
The Drevlians sent twenty of their best men to persuade Olga to marry their Prince Mal and give up her rule of Kievan Rus. She had them buried alive. Then she sent word to Prince Mal that she accepted the proposal, but required their most distinguished men to accompany her on the journey in order for her people to accept the offer of marriage. The Drevlians sent their best men who governed their land. Upon their arrival, she offered them a warm welcome and an invitation to clean up after their long journey in a bathhouse. After they entered, she locked the doors and set fire to the building, burning them alive.
With the best and wisest men out of the way, she planned to destroy the remaining Drevlians. […]
Basically, it's A Game of Thrones without the dragons.
[Via Chris Williams, commenting in a thread on diplomacy at Blood & Treasure]
June 24th, 2014
The man who hoped to die in a railway crash:
Money. Property. Land. Heirlooms. Whatever the mourners were hoping to inherit when they first gathered for the reading of the will, they were to be sorely disappointed.
Shock. Disbelief. Dismay. Indignation. That's what they got instead. The man they grieved, who had never given them so much as a penny while he breathed, stayed true to the habit of his lifetime.
He'd left everything – the whole kit and caboodle – to his killer. It wasn't a ghastly coincidence, nor the tell-tale sign of murderous greed, but a heartfelt gesture of thanks – appreciation for a job well done. […]
June 18th, 2014
Jennifer in paradise: the story of the first Photoshopped image…
"It was a good image to do demos with," Knoll recalls. "It was pleasing to look at and there were a whole bunch of things you could do with that image technically." And maybe there was something in it that hinted at the kind of more perfect world that Photoshop might reveal. Knoll would leave a copy of the software in a package including the picture at the companies he'd visited. Often he'd return to find that the programmers had cloned his wife.
[Via Wis[s]e Words]
May 31st, 2014
Geoff Manaugh, on the work of 19th century surveyors in California who set out to map out the borders between counties:
Like a dust-covered Tron of the desert, surrounded by the invisible mathematics of a grid that had yet to be realized, these over-dressed gentlemen of another century helped give rise to an abstract model of the state.
May 5th, 2014
19 feet down and 9 feet to the west of the original site:
Like the Pentagon, its better-known counterpart in the United States, Britain's Ministry of Defence building is a fairly mundane, if gigantic, office block camouflaging a much more exciting subterranean realm of secret tunnels, bunkers, and – at least in the MoD's case – a perfectly preserved Tudor wine cellar. […]
May 5th, 2014
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]
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.
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. [...]
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.
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.
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 browser ever never got popular enough for anyone else to want to pretend to be it.
[Via The Tao Of Mac]
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.
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.
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.
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? [...]
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. [...]
August 6th, 2013
Steven Johnson is working on a TV series, a six-part PBS series to be distributed outside the USA by BBC Worldwide 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.
July 29th, 2013
Actual European Discoveries: land unknown by humans before the Age of Exploration…
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. [...]