Tag: history

Friday feudalism

Check out these things I discovered this week, and wanted to pass along:

  • Study shows some political beliefs are just historical accidents (Ars Technica) — “Obviously, these experiments aren’t exactly like the real world, where political leaders can try to steer their parties. Still, it’s another way to show that some political beliefs aren’t inviolable principles—some are likely just the result of a historical accident reinforced by a potent form of tribal peer pressure. And in the early days of an issue, people are particularly susceptible to tribal cues as they form an opinion.”
  • Please, My Digital Archive. It’s Very Sick. (Lapham’s Quarterly) — “An archivist’s dream is immaculate preservation, documentation, accessibility, the chance for our shared history to speak to us once more in the present. But if the preservation of digital documents remains an unsolvable puzzle, ornery in ways that print materials often aren’t, what good will our archiving do should it become impossible to inhabit the world we attempt to preserve?”
  • So You’re 35 and All Your Friends Have Already Shed Their Human Skins (McSweeney’s) — “It’s a myth that once you hit 40 you can’t slowly and agonizingly mutate from a human being into a hideous, infernal arachnid whose gluttonous shrieks are hymns to the mad vampire-goddess Maggorthulax. You have time. There’s no biological clock ticking. The parasitic worms inside you exist outside of our space-time continuum.”
  • Investing in Your Ordinary Powers (Breaking Smart) — “The industrial world is set up to both encourage and coerce you to discover, as early as possible, what makes you special, double down on it, and build a distinguishable identity around it. Your specialness-based identity is in some ways your Industrial True Name. It is how the world picks you out from the crowd.”
  • Browser Fingerprinting: An Introduction and the Challenges Ahead (The Tor Project) — “This technique is so rooted in mechanisms that exist since the beginning of the web that it is very complex to get rid of it. It is one thing to remove differences between users as much as possible. It is a completely different one to remove device-specific information altogether.”
  • What is a Blockchain Phone? The HTC Exodus explained (giffgaff) — “HTC believes that in the future, your phone could hold your passport, driving license, wallet, and other important documents. It will only be unlockable by you which makes it more secure than paper documents.”
  • Debate rages in Austria over enshrining use of cash in the constitution (EURACTIV) — “Academic and author Erich Kirchler, a specialist in economic psychology, says in Austria and Germany, citizens are aware of the dangers of an overmighty state from their World War II experience.”
  • Cory Doctorow: DRM Broke Its Promise (Locus magazine) — “We gave up on owning things – property now being the exclusive purview of transhuman immortal colony organisms called corporations – and we were promised flexibility and bargains. We got price-gouging and brittle­ness.”
  • Five Books That Changed Me In One Summer (Warren Ellis) — “I must have been around 14. Rayleigh Library and the Oxfam shop a few doors down the high street from it, which someone was clearly using to pay things forward and warp younger minds.”

Friday fabrications

These things made me sit up and take notice:

Image via xkcd

Fascinating Friday Facts

Here’s some links I thought I’d share which struck me as interesting:

Header image: Keep out! The 100m² countries – in pictures (The Guardian)

Acoustic mirrors

On the beach at Druridge Bay in Northumberland, near where I live, there are large blocks in various intervals. These hulking pieces of concrete, now half-submerged, were deployed on seafronts up and down England to prevent the enemy successfully landing tanks during the Second World War.

I was fascinated to find out that these aren’t the only concrete blocks that protected Britain. BBC News reports that ‘acoustic mirrors’ were installed for a very specific purpose:

More than 100 years ago acoustic mirrors along the coast of England were built with the intention of using them to detect the sound of approaching German zeppelins.

The concave concrete structures were designed to pick up sound waves from enemy aircraft, making it possible to predict their flight trajectory, giving enough time for ground forces to be alerted to defend the towns and cities of Britain.

Some of these, which vary in size, still exist, and have been photographed by Joe Pettet-Smith.

The reason most of us haven’t heard of them is that the technology improved so quickly. Pettet-Smith comments:

The sound mirror experiment, this idea of having a chain of concrete structures facing the Channel using sound to detect the flight trajectory of enemy aircraft, was just that – an experiment. They tried many different sizes and designs before the project was scrapped when radar was introduced.

The science was solid, but aircraft kept getting faster and quieter, which made them obsolete.

Fascinating. The historian (and technologist) within me loves this.

Source: BBC News

An incorrect approach to teaching History

My thanks to Amy Burvall for bringing to my attention this article about how we’re teaching History incorrectly. Its focus is on how ‘fact-checking’ is so different with the internet than it was beforehand. There’s a lot of similarities between what the interviewee, Sam Wineburg, has to say and what Mike Caulfield has been working on with Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers:

Fact-checkers know that in a digital medium, the web is a web. It’s not just a metaphor. You understand a particular node by its relationship in a web. So the smartest thing to do is to consult the web to understand any particular node. That is very different from reading Thucydides, where you look at internal criticism and consistency because there really isn’t a documentary record beyond Thucydides.

Source: Slate

Inequality, anarchy, and the course of human history

Sometimes I’m reminded of the fact that I haven’t checked in with someone’s worth for a few weeks, months, or even years. I’m continually impressed with the work of my near-namesake Dougald Hine. I hope to meet him in person one day.

Going back through his recent work led me to a long article in Eurozine by David Graeber and David Wengrow about how we tend to frame history incorrectly.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Graeber and Wengrow essentially argue that most people start from the assumption that we have a choice between a life that is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ (i.e. most of human history) or one that is more civilised (i.e. today). If we want the latter, we have to put up with inequality.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society.

But inequality is not the inevitable result of living in a civilised society, as they point out with some in-depth examples. I haven’t got space to go through them here, but suffice to say that it seems a classic case of historians cherry-picking their evidence.

As Claude Lévi-Strauss often pointed out, early Homo sapiens were not just physically the same as modern humans, they were our intellectual peers as well. In fact, most were probably more conscious of society’s potential than people generally are today, switching back and forth between different forms of organization every year. Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

If so, then the real question is not ‘what are the origins of social inequality?’, but, having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, ‘how did we get so stuck?’

Definitely worth a read, particularly if you think that ‘anarchy’ is the opposite of ‘civilisation’.

Source: Eurozine (via Dougald Hine)

Image CC BY-NC-SA xina

Soviet-era industrial design

While the prospects of me learning the Russian language anytime soon are effectively zero, I do have a soft spot for the country. My favourite novels are 19th century Russian fiction, the historical time period I’m most fond of is the Russian revolutions of 1917*, and I really like some of the designs that came out of Bolshevik and Stalinist Russia. (That doesn’t mean I condone the atrocities, of course.)

The Soviet era, from 1950 onwards, isn’t really a time period I’ve studied in much depth. I taught it as a History teacher as part of a module on the Cold War, but that was very much focused on the American and British side of things. So I’ve missed out on some of the wonderful design that came out of that time period. Here’s a couple of my favourites featured in this article. I may have to buy the book it mentions!

Soviet radio

Soviet textiles

Source: Atlas Obscura

* I’m currently reading October: the story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville, which I’d recommend.

Humans responsible for the Black Death

I taught History for years, and when I was teaching the Black Death, I inculcated the received wisdom that it was rats that were responsible for the spread of disease.

But a team from the universities of Oslo and Ferrara now says the first, the Black Death, can be “largely ascribed to human fleas and body lice”.

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, uses records of its pattern and scale.

There are three candidates for the spread of the Black Death: rats, air, and lice/fleas:

[Prof Nils Stenseth, from the University of Oslo] and his colleagues… simulated disease outbreaks in [nine European] cities, creating three models where the disease was spread by:

  • rats
  • airborne transmission
  • fleas and lice that live on humans and their clothes

In seven out of the nine cities studied, the “human parasite model” was a much better match for the pattern of the outbreak.

It mirrored how quickly it spread and how many people it affected.

“The conclusion was very clear,” said Prof Stenseth. “The lice model fits best.”

Apologies to all those I taught the incorrect cause! I hope it hasn’t affected you too much in later life…

Source: BBC News

The origin of the term ‘open source’

I didn’t used to think that who came up with the name of a thing particularly mattered, nor how it came about.

I’ve changed my mind, however, as the history of these things also potentially tells you about their future. In this article, Christine Peterson outlines how she came up with the term ‘open source’:

The introduction of the term “open source software” was a deliberate effort to make this field of endeavor more understandable to newcomers and to business, which was viewed as necessary to its spread to a broader community of users. The problem with the main earlier label, “free software,” was not its political connotations, but that—to newcomers—its seeming focus on price is distracting. A term was needed that focuses on the key issue of source code and that does not immediately confuse those new to the concept. The first term that came along at the right time and fulfilled these requirements was rapidly adopted: open source.

Tellingly, as it was the 1990s, Peterson let a man introduce it for the term to gain traction:

Toward the end of the meeting, the question of terminology was brought up explicitly, probably by Todd or Eric. Maddog mentioned “freely distributable” as an earlier term, and “cooperatively developed” as a newer term. Eric listed “free software,” “open source,” and “sourceware” as the main options. Todd advocated the “open source” model, and Eric endorsed this. I didn’t say much, letting Todd and Eric pull the (loose, informal) consensus together around the open source name. It was clear that to most of those at the meeting, the name change was not the most important thing discussed there; a relatively minor issue. Only about 10% of my notes from this meeting are on the terminology question.

From this point, Tim O’Reilly had to agree and popularise it, but:

Coming up with a phrase is a small contribution, but I admit to being grateful to those who remember to credit me with it. Every time I hear it, which is very often now, it gives me a little happy twinge.

Source: opensource.com

Where would your country be if the world was like Pangea?

I love this kind of stuff. As my daughter commented when I showed her, “we would be able to walk to Spain!”

The supercontinent of Pangea formed some 270 million years ago, during the Early Permian Period, and then began to break up 70 million years later, eventually yielding the continents we inhabit today. Pangea was, of course, a peopleless place. But if you were to drop today’s nations on that great land mass, here’s what it might look like.

Source: Open Culture