Writing is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, and both it and language evolved in predictable ways. They are related but distinct.
That’s a theme from this year’s March 2022 book “The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts” written by Silvia Ferrera.
Below I’ve captured my notes for future reference.
Continue reading The Greatest Invention: notes on language and writing
We interact with computers to help us think.
Both in the transactional sense that these machines can help us solve math problems or search across a vast array of indexed information, and in the deeper sense that we can patter our own behaviors around how a computer solves a problem. This wasn’t always inevitable.
Before the invention of the keyboard, computer mouse and graphical interface, and certainly before the government-funded creation of the internet, computers were seen charitably as oversized and expensive calculators. They may seem today like an appliance that is as valuable to our quality of life as an indoor toilet or a heating system. It took vision to make the change.
The people (yes, especially a particular man) behind that vision is the focus of The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal, a 2001 book by science journalist M. Mitchell Waldrop. The book tells the story of J.C.R. Licklider (1915-1990) and his role in the development of the modern personal computer. Licklider, a psychologist and computer scientist, was one of the pioneers of the concept of “interactive computing,” which envisioned a future in which computers would be accessible and easy to use for individuals, rather than just large institutions.
Continue reading J.C.R. Licklider and his Dream Machine of personal computing
The Lenape people controlled their territory, and they meaningfully shaped the society that developed in present-day Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
So argues the 2016 book Lenape Country Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn written by Lehigh University professor Jean R. Soderlund. A prevailing narrative is of a relatively weak and minor subgroup of the Alqonquian people but this book argues something more nuanced.
Other big themes: early Swedish settlers remained primarily trading partners with the Lenape, which contrasted with the Dutch and the English who over time seemed more interested in colonizing, though the English Quakers were on the whole far more peaceable than the Chesapeake, New Amsterdam and New England regions. The Lenape themselves shaped this reality.
This is a rich social-political history of the earliest recorded details of Lenape life. I strongly recommend buying a copy if you love history and the details of indigenous and European engagement. As is my custom, I share notes from my reading below for my future reference but please do pick up a copy.
Continue reading Lenape Country before William Penn
From the Economist:
A book seems such a simple structure that it feels less invented than self-evident, the innovations behind it hard to see. Yet every chapter in its progress was slow, bound on either side by centuries of sluggishness. Turnable pages didn’t really arrive until the first century bc; the book form didn’t take off properly until the fourth century ad. The separating of words with spaces didn’t get going until the seventh—verylateforsomethingsouseful. Finally things accelerated: first came the index, in the 13th century, then Gutenberg, then, in 1470, the first printed page number. You can still see it in a book in the Bodleian Library.
This is adapted from a Twitter thread.
There are many parallels between early newspapers and today. Like then, today big tech platforms are vilified for taking creative destruction to a more harmful end to civic discourse.
Then partisanship and misinformation gave rise to the modern concept of editing. Perhaps something akin is happening again.
Continue reading Newspapers were once the big tech platform companies everyone hated
Ahead of an Antiracist seminar that several coworkers and I are attending, organizer Kim Crayton recommended attendees listen back to the popular 2017 podcast season of Scene on the Radio ‘Seeing White.”
Though it’s several years old, I appreciated listening in greater detail and with fresh eyes. It’s as timely today as ever. Here I will share notes for me to return to, but I strongly suggest you listen to the entire excellent 14-episode series on “whiteness,” the historical construct of race and its implications today.
Continue reading Notes from Scene on Radio’s ‘Seeing White’ in 2017
The journey to get to professionally-verified information includes social, economic and political coursework. To share this journey, historian Andrew Pettegree focused in his 2014 book The Invention of the News heavily on the European development.
It is dense and comprehensive, at least in the continental sense. It’s been on my list for a year or so, and I finally dug into it, with pages of notes. Find reviews of the book in the Times and Guardian, and consider buying the book yourself. The book’s focus is between the years of 1400 to 1800, and it’s clearly written by a historian, rather than a contemporary media studies approach—I prefer this more dispassionate and distant view of the origins of an industry.
Knowing that printing had earlier roots in China, the book is decidedly Eurocentric. Still I would strongly recommend it to anyone as interested as I am in the foundation of media, news and journalism. Pettegree’s stance is that the industry of professionalizing information-gathering was a European concept, which is his focus. This was one of several books on early journalism foundations I’ve read in the last year.
Find my notes below.
Continue reading Notes on ‘The Invention of News’ by Andrew Pettegree
As Mark Twain put it: “History is the pale and tranquil reflection” of news.
Before the patriotic tales of heroism, there was urgent, partisan and divided reporting about the relationship between American colonists and the British crown. In his 2012 book Reporting the Revolutionary War, Todd Andrlik gives us a chance at seeing the events when there was nothing predetermined.
The book is heavily reliant on scanned copies of original source newspapers (both from colonial and English accounts), with some contextual interpretation from 37 historians. I recommend the book for a visual look at the fast-paced beat reporting the era. Below I share just a few notes that stood out to me.
Continue reading Note on “Reporting the Revolutionary War” from 2012 by Todd Andrlik
Our species, Homo sapiens, first grew powerful by banding together through myth-making. That self-deception is our strength and our curse.
That is something like the thesis of Sapiens, a kind of pop anthropology anthology that has — like all books that generalize heady issues — caught both praise and derision. Written by Yuval Noah Harari, it was first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011 and in English in 2014. I was gifted a copy by a collaborator of mine, Deborah Diamond and I read it in a couple weeks. I’m sharing here some of what I got from reading it.
Public intellectuals seem to face a harrowing choice. Either dive deeply into their subject matter to influence their peers but risk their ideas remaining obscure, or focus on translating and synthesizing for a broader audience, and attract scorn from those deeper situated in the academic. Harari is squarely in the latter category, garnering a 2018 New York Times profile focused on the adulation he’s received from tech executives, despite his criticism of their work.
Like a breakout hit in linguistics that I read, I approach these books with neither extreme. I find them fun, discover ideas to dive deeper into and often get inspiration. That was my experience with Harari’s book — even though I found myself ignoring extended passages of his extrapolation. I enjoyed it.
Continue reading Notes from reading ‘Sapiens,’ a brief history of humankind
A version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. In its own way, it commemorates African American History Month. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.
Dr. King is likely the American thinker who comes to my mind more than any other. Not the populist who was culturally moderated over time into a convenient character for classroom posters. But the difficult and complicated and tortured man, the leader who was flawed and inspiring and masterful in so many ways.
When a MLK quote rattles in my head, it isn’t his iconic, if tired, classic: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Pulled from its context, that’s always seemed to me to be too universal to stir. Instead, it comforts, and I’ve found always found MLK misunderstood when he’s seen as a comforting.
Continue reading Our ‘tranquilizing drug of gradualism’