Communication tied up in knots

I think I might have remembered that the Inkas never invented the wheel, but I didn’t know they hadn’t invented writing. It seems so fundamental to civilisation development. Apparently ‘knot’.

The khipu code: the knotty mystery of the Inkas’ 3D records
But, after more than a century of study, we remain unable to fully crack the code of the khipus. The challenge rests not in a lack of artifacts – over 1,000 khipus are known to us today – but in their variety and complexity. We confront tens of thousands of knots tied by different people, for different purposes and in different regions of the empire. Cracking the code amounts to finding a pattern in history’s knotted haystack.

Ok, I can just about understand the like-an-abacus-but-made-of-string category of these strange artefacts, but those types only accounts for two thirds of the ones remaining today.

The remaining third of these devices – the so-called narrative khipus – appear to contain encoded non-numerical, narrative information, including names, stories and even ancient philosophies. For those who love puzzles, the narrative khipus are a godsend.

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Mexican earth movers

I don’t really follow sports news, but this story caught my eye. All the children in my daughter’s class at school have been given, at random, the name of a football team from the World Cup to support. Her team is Mexico, who seem off to a great start.

Mexico fans set off earthquake sensors celebrating seismic World Cup win
Mexicans jumping in jubilation on Sunday shook the ground hard enough to set off earthquake detectors after their team scored a surprise victory over World Cup defending champions Germany. The Institute of Geological and Atmospheric Investigations said highly sensitive earthquake sensors registered tremors at two sites in Mexico City, seven seconds after the game’s 35th minute, when star player Hirving Lozano scored. It called the tremors an “artificial” quake.

Glasses wearers really are smarter after all?

I always thought so.

Wearing glasses may really mean you’re smarter, major study finds
In the study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, researchers from the University of Edinburgh analyzed cognitive and genetic data from over 300,000 people aged between 16 and 102 that had been gathered by the UK Biobank and the Charge and Cogent consortia. Their analysis found “significant genetic overlap between general cognitive function, reaction time, and many health variables including eyesight, hypertension, and longevity”. Specifically, people who were more intelligent were almost 30% more likely to have genes which might indicate they’d need to wear glasses.

The usual caveat about correlation not implying causation applies, obviously. Just make sure you wear them for your day in court.

Forget genetics though – there’s plenty of empirical evidence that wearing glasses, whether you need them or not, makes people think you are more intelligent. A number of studies have found people who wear glasses are perceived as smarter, more dependable, industrious and honest. Which is why a lot of defense lawyers get their clients to wear glasses at trial. As lawyer Harvey Slovis explained to New York magazine: “Glasses soften their appearance so that they don’t look capable of committing a crime. I’ve tried cases where there’s been a tremendous amount of evidence, but my client wore glasses and got acquitted. The glasses create a kind of unspoken nerd defense.”

I like how the webpage then shows a link to this article, though.

Why does it seem like serial killers all wear the same glasses?
The list of serial killers who wore glasses is long and bloody, from Dahmer to BTK to Harold Shipman and his professorial frames; even the Zodiac Killer, never caught, wears a thick-rimmed pair in a police sketch. The aesthetic of “serial killer glasses” is so pervasive that it pops up everywhere from Urban Dictionary (“Eyeglasses with heavy or severe frames that live somewhere between fashionable and creepy”) to TV Tropes (where “a guy who is cold, emotionless … or even a soulless monster” is given glasses “to quickly tip off the audience to his personality”), and countless Tumblr posts in between.

Too many organ donors

Atlas Obscura takes us to Windham County, Vermont, to a local history museum with an unusual stock problem.

The Vermont town that has way too many organs
In its heyday, the Estey Organ Company factory was the beating, bleating heart of Brattleboro, Vermont. It produced more than half a million organs in total and, at its peak, employed more than 500 people. On a fateful day in 1960, however, the assembly lines shut down and workers departed. After nearly a century in operation, the organ factory had gone silent.

And then, like the most improbable boomerangs, the organs started coming back.

Keen to preserve some of the town’s heritage, people started donating their unwanted organs back to Brattleboro, to the town’s historical society. Soon they had enough to open a dedicated organ museum, based in the old factory, but still the organs kept coming.

“In a way, it’s my fault that we have all these organs,” says George. She was generous with the old factory space, which at first provided ample room. But after years of accepting any and all organ donations, many of the buildings began to fill up. It was a unique predicament for any local society. What do you do with hundreds of antique, mostly unplayable organs?

Organs are such strange instruments. You wouldn’t describe a violin as a machine, as such, but that term seems to fit some of these examples.

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They came in an astonishing range of shapes, sizes, and uses, from children’s toys, to living-room centerpieces, to the crown jewels of community churches and theaters. Some of the organs were designed to fold up into little suitcases and could be taken anywhere. The historical society has photos of chaplains playing portable Estey reed organs in World War II, and the society boasts that their organs have pumped out tunes on six of the world’s continents (poor Antarctica).

From a time before Duolingo

Food to the rescue.

Gleanings from the past #54
A ludicrous story is told of a great naval function which took place during the reign of the last Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie. Several American vessels were present, and they were drawn up in line to salute the Empress’s yacht as it passed. The French sailors, of course, manned the yards of their ships, and shouted ‘Vive l’Impératrice!’ The American Admiral knew that it was impossible to teach these words to his men in the time left to him, so he ordered his crew to shout ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese!’ The imperial yacht came on, and as it passed the fleet there was a mighty roar of ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese.’ And the Empress said she had never received such an ovation before.

Weaponized classical music?

An interesting but depressing essay from the LA Review of Books about the uses classical music is being put to these days.

Whereas Japanese train stations are attempting to move on undesirables by playing ugly sounds only the young can hear, in other parts of the world it’s the wonderfully uplifting (to me, anyway) music of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart that’s being used instead.

Bach at the Burger King
The inspiration for the Burger King plan, a CMCBD official commented, came from the London Underground. In 2005, the metro system started playing orchestral soundtracks in 65 tube stations as part of a scheme to deter “anti-social” behavior, after the surprising success of a 2003 pilot program. The pilot’s remarkable results — seeing train robberies fall 33 percent, verbal assaults on staff drop 25 percent, and vandalism decrease 37 percent after just 18 months of classical music — caught the eye of the global law-enforcement community. Thus, an international phenomenon was born. Since then, weaponized classical music has spread throughout England and the world: police units across the planet now deploy the string quartet as the latest addition to their crime-fighting arsenal, recruiting Officer Johann Sebastian as the newest member of the force.

[…]

It is crucial to remember that the tactic does not aim to stop or even necessarily reduce crime — but to relocate it. Moreover, such mercenary measures most often target minor infractions like vandalism and loitering — crimes that damage property, not people, and usually the property of the powerful. “[B]usiness and government leaders,” Lily Hirsch observes in Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, “are seizing on classical music not as a positive moralizing force, but as a marker of space.” In a strange mutation, classical music devolves from a “universal language of mankind” reminding all people of their common humanity into a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that “you’re not welcome here.”

So our metaphor for music’s power must change from panacea to punishment, from unifying to separating force, as its purpose slips from aesthetic or spiritual ennoblement into economic relocation. Mozart has traded in a career as doctor for the soul to become an eviction agent for the poor.

And as if that’s not bad enough, the essay goes on to examine how classical music is being further reduced by advertising and our ‘sound-bite culture’.

Extended musical forms allow the listener to appreciate the subtle interplay of motif and movement — and it is exactly this nuanced appreciation that quote-clipping nullifies. There is a two-part mechanism to extract and transplant a tune: detach a 15-second theme from a 45-minute symphony (where it functioned as an integrated part in an organic whole) and attach it to an alien subject. Uproot “O Fortuna” from a Latin cantata, so it can be grafted onto a Domino’s Super Bowl spot. These transplants produce jarring mashups that trigger another insidious side effect: by always quoting works out of the context the public forgets that they have a context. The spectator forgets that “O Fortuna” could be glorious in its original context because it’s absurd hyping Domino’s Pizza. In sum, in the remix media ecosystem, famous compositions degenerate from serious music into decorative sound, applied like wallpaper to lay a poignant surface over banal intentions.

New alphabets, new words

I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to organise. Kazakhstan is changing its official alphabet — every written thing across all areas of life, work, education, commerce — from the Russian-based Cyrillic one to the Latin-based one of the West.

The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet
That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

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So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

The government aims to complete the move by 2025. I’d love to revisit this story then, to see if they meet their deadline and budget.

I wonder if Kazakhstan’s new alphabet will be put to use with some of the new words this report discusses. A University of Birmingham researcher has analysed 900 million tweets from October 2013 to November 2014 from users in the USA, looking for terms that started off rare but became more popular.

Feeling litt? The five hotspots driving English forward
The result was a list of 54 terms, which covered everything from sex and relationships (such as “baeless” – a synonym for single), people’s appearance (“gainz” to describe the increased muscle mass from bulking up at the gym), and technology (“celfie” – an alternative spelling of selfie). Others reflected the infiltration of Japanese culture (such as “senpai”, which means teacher or master). They also described general feelings, like “litt” (or “litty” – which means impressive or good – or affirmations such as “yaaaas” (as an alternative to yes.) Interestingly, some of these terms such as “candids” (a noun describing photos taken without the other person’s knowledge) have been around for years, but were extremely rare until seeing a sudden rise in popularity.

Because the messages were timestamped and geocoded, he could track five geographic hubs that were driving these changes and additions to the language; West Coast, Deep South, North East, Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast  The third (and final) southern region to feature in Grieve’s analysis, this hub centred around New Orleans, extending across Louisiana and into eastern and coastal Texas and along the Mississippi to Memphis. One of the region’s most noteworthy contributions – idgt (I don’t get tired) – became a catchphrase of the rapper Kevin Gates, who grew up in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, and released a single of the same name in 2014.

Notable terms: bruuh (bro’): idgt (I don’t get tired); lordt (Oh Lord!)

Looking forward in anger

Zoe Williams at the Guardian tries to understand where all the anger is coming from these days. Does anger always have an economic basis? Is social media to blame? Can it be a force for good? There’s certainly a lot of it about.

Why are we living in an age of anger – is it because of the 50-year rage cycle?
There was the mean note left on the car of a disabled woman (“I witnessed you and your young able-bodied daughter … walk towards the precinct with no sign of disability”); the crazed dyspepsia of the woman whose driveway was blocked briefly by paramedics while they tried to save someone’s life. Last week, Highways England felt moved to launch a campaign against road rage, spurred by 3,446 recorded instances in a year of motorists driving straight through roadworks. Violent crime has not gone up – well, it has, but this is thought mainly to reflect better reporting practices – but violent fantasies are ablaze. Political discourse is drenched in rage. The things people want to do to Diane Abbott and Luciana Berger make my eyes pop out of my head.

I’m not really convinced by the theories that suggest these things are cyclical. The dates of these suggested 40 to 60 year ‘Kondratiev waves’ of high and low economic growth, that tie in to periods of stagnation, unrest and anger, feel a little forced. I’m going to continue to blame Trump. And social media.

Social media has given us a way to transmute that anger from the workplace – which often we do not have the power to change – to every other area of life. You can go on Mumsnet to get angry with other people’s lazy husbands and interfering mother-in-laws; Twitter to find comradeship in fury about politics and punctuation; Facebook for rage-offs about people who shouted at a baby on a train or left their dog in a hot car. These social forums “enable hysterical contagion”, says Balick, but that does not mean it is always unproductive. The example he uses of a groundswell of infectious anger that became a movement is the Arab spring, but you could point to petitions websites such as 38 Degrees and Avaaz or crowdfunded justice projects. Most broad, collaborative calls for change begin with a story that enrages people.

Yes, ok, fair enough.

A book 20 years in the writing

A great piece by Craig Mod about kottke.org, a website I’ve been following for many years now.

If kottke.org were a book
There are so few websites that have been around for twenty years. Certainly so few that are not explicitly commercial in intent, built on a singular voice and point of view. Because of that, sites like kottke.org have a special emotional resonance not often found online. For those of us who have not just used the web but built on the web for decades, a place like kottke.org becomes almost physical in its emotional resonance.

The web’s been slowly turning to crap over recent years, with all the fun melting away like dropped ice cream, but kottke.org has been one of the few fixed points. Long may it continue.

Very different approaches to movie music

I mentioned the upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic earlier. Whilst his Broadway musical, West Side Story, was quickly turned into a film, I don’t really think of him as a movie composer.

Here are a couple of articles about composing music for the movies.

How the iconic music of 2001: A Space Odyssey came to be
When he was finally cutting the film, he started laying in this music that he’d been amassing during post and even during production. He would watch the rushes and listen to music. In fact, one of the key catalysts was, when the MGM [head] brass flew in from LA and from New York, Tony Frewin [Kubrick’s assistant on the film], who was 19 years old, the week before the MGM brass flew in, Kubrick said, “Tony, get petty cash. Get this much money and go buy all the classical music you can find downtown.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda is a reflection on how the composer hears the world
This sort of spontaneous fluidity is what has driven most of the composer’s work throughout his decades-long career. In the film, we see his restless creative energy at work, as he edits and adds to tracks while sitting on an exercise ball in his home studio. He improvises on a track playing in the background by running a violin bow across a hi-hat cymbal to unnerving effect. He listens to his environment with a playful curiosity, endlessly experimenting with whatever he can find