Historical time-keeping

An essay from Paul J Kosmin, a humanities professor at Harvard, on an aspect of time that I hadn’t thought about at all— it wasn’t always just a number, regular and universal.

A revolution in time
Each of these systems was geographically localised. There was no transcendent or translocal system for locating oneself in the flow of history. How could one synchronise events at geographical distance, or between states? Take the example of the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and Sparta in the last third of the 5th century BCE. This is how the great Athenian historian Thucydides attempted to date its outbreak:

The ‘Thirty Years’ Peace’, which was entered into after the conquest of Euboea, lasted 14 years; in the 15th year, in the 48th year of the priesthood of Chrysis at Argos, and when Aenesias was magistrate at Sparta, and there still being two months left of the magistracy of Pythodorus at Athens, six months after the battle of Potidaea, and at the beginning of spring, a Theban force a little over 300 strong … at about the first watch of the night made an armed entry into Plataea, a Boeotian town in alliance with Athens.

Where we would write, simply, ‘431 BCE’, Thucydides was obliged to synchronise the first shot of war to non-overlapping diplomatic, religious, civic, military, seasonal and hourly data points.

And for some context, there’s this.

The lifespans of ancient civilizations
The average lifespan of those surveyed was 336 years, but some of the longest-lived civilizations were the Vedics, Olmecs, Kushites, and the Aksumites…they each lasted about 1000 years or more.

Battling Brexit

Don’t worry about Brexit, a 76-year-old former Secretary of State, and a 72-year-old former spoon bender are on it.

Brexit: Vince Cable stakes Lib Dems’ claim as torch carriers for remain
Vince Cable has staked the Liberal Democrats’ claim to be the leading remain party in the European elections, as he unveiled a forthright new slogan for the campaign: “Bollocks to Brexit.” The phrase, previously plastered on stickers and T-shirts by ardent remain supporters, is now emblazoned across the Lib Dem manifesto for the 23 May poll – though more squeamish candidates will have the option of one that just says “Stop Brexit”.

Bending BREXIT? Uri Geller Sends Open Letter to Theresa May
I feel psychically and very strongly than most British people do not want Brexit. I love you very much but I will not allow you to lead Britain into Brexit. As much as I admire you, I will stop you telepathically from doing this — and believe me I am capable of executing it.

battling-brexit-1  battling-brexit-2

Can you say ‘Oops’ 46 million times?

Red faces in Australia’s Reserve Bank today.

There’s a spelling mistake on the new $50 note
The story came from the Hot Breakfast’s Hot Tips, with an anonymous caller letting us know about the microscopic stuff up. The miniature text is part of a speech by Edith Cowan — who features on the note itself — and reads: “I stand here today in the unique position of being the first woman in an Australian parliament. It is a great responsibilty.”

According to The Guardian, 46,000,000 of these $50 notes have been printed, totalling $2,300,000,000. That’s quite a costly mistake. Here are a few more.

The most expensive typing error ever?
Nasa’s missing hyphen; the extra ‘s’ that could cost £8.8 million; and recipes for disaster.

Boy meets girl meets robot

So what to read next, after Dune? More sci-fi? Ian McEwan’s “retrofuturist family drama” seems to be getting some attention.

Man, woman, and robot in Ian McEwan’s new novel
It’s London, 1982. The Beatles have reunited (to mixed reviews), Margaret Thatcher has just lost the Falkland Islands to Argentina, and Sir Alan Turing, now seventy, is the presiding spirit of a preemie Information Age. People have already soured on the latest innovations, among them “speaking fridges with a sense of smell” and driverless cars that cause multinational gridlock. “The future kept arriving,” Charlie ruminates. “Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.”

Buyer’s remorse is a recurring theme in Ian McEwan’s witty and humane new novel, “Machines Like Me” (Nan A. Talese), a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice. Though steeped in computer science, from the P-versus-NP problem to DNA-inspired neural networks, the book is not meant to be a feat of hard-sci-fi imagineering; McEwan’s aim is to probe the moral consequences of what philosophers call “the problem of other minds.”

In “Machines Like Me”, Ian McEwan asks an age-old question
Amid all the action, there are sober passages of philosophical discussion between Charlie and Adam. But in parts the novel is funny, too. To Charlie’s disgust, Adam’s encyclopedic recall of Shakespeare makes him seem the better catch to Miranda’s father, a writer, who assumes Charlie is the robot, because he isn’t interested in books.

Late in the story it emerges that other androids around the world are committing suicide in horror at the behaviour of their flesh-and-blood masters. Adam wonders about the “mystery of the self” and his fear that he is “subject to a form of Cartesian error”. Strip away the counterfactual wrapping and “Machines Like Me” is ultimately about the age-old question of what makes people human. The reader is left baffled and beguiled.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan review – intelligent mischief
This is the mode of exposition in which he [Kipling] seems to address the reader from a position of shared knowledge, sketching out an unfamiliar reality through hints and allusions, but never explaining it too completely. This inside-out style is the default mode of modern SF. It is economical and of special usefulness to makers of strange worlds, plunging a reader into a new reality and leaving them space to feel like a participant in its creation. It’s the opposite technique to that of McEwan’s narrator, who explicitly sets out his world, overexplains the historical context and never turns down a chance to offer an essayistic digression.

To my taste, this is a flat-footed way of doing sci-fi.

‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?
Machines Like Me is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.” There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here, with McEwan drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line.

But perhaps we’ve had enough about robots and AI recently.

Never mind killer robots—here are six real AI dangers to watch out for in 2019
The latest AI methods excel at perceptual tasks such as classifying images and transcribing speech, but the hype and excitement over these skills have disguised how far we really are from building machines as clever as we are. Six controversies from 2018 stand out as warnings that even the smartest AI algorithms can misbehave, or that carelessly applying them can have dire consequences.

Dune. Done.

So. They’re remaking Dune.

7 things we know so far about the Dune remake (& 3 things fans are hoping for)
Dune has quickly become one of the most anticipated upcoming movies. With plenty of talent and a beloved source material already behind it, there were plenty of fans looking forward to this big screen adaptation. However, with big names being announced to the cast seeming every day, excitement for the film has skyrocketed.

I thought now would be a good time to read the book, to see what all the fuss is about. All I knew of it was from the David Lynch film. It didn’t make much of an impression, to be honest.

Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world
Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

The book is over 50 years old. You can buy this collector’s edition from the Folio Society for £75, or the e-book together with its five sequels on Amazon for £1.99. I chose the latter.

Manny Rayner’s review of Dune
So that was the Dune we know and love, but the man who rewrote it now would get a rather different reception. Oh my God! These Fremen, who obviously speak Arabic, live on a desert planet which supplies the Universe with melange, a commodity essential to the Galactic economy, and in particular to transport. Not a very subtle way to say “oil”! They are tough, uncompromising fighters, who are quite happy to use suicide bombing as a tactic. They’re led by a charismatic former rich kid (OK, we get who you mean), who inspires them to rise up against the corrupt, degenerate… um, does he mean Westerners?

Dune has made a huge impact on many people, one that it failed to make on me, but then I watched this. My goodness, imagine if this had been made instead.

Jodorowsky’s Dune | Official Trailer HD (2014)

I knew Jodorowsky from watching the incredible, hypnotic Santa Sangre many years ago, and knew he had wanted to do something with Dune, but hadn’t really appreciated the full extent of his surrealist and psychedelic project until I watched that documentary. Goodness me.

And what an incredible legacy that film-that-never-was has left us. Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger’s work on Alien, for example. But also Dan O’Bannon’s collaboration with Moebius.

“The Long Tomorrow”: Discover Mœbius’ hard-boiled detective comic that inspired Blade Runner
Alejandro Jodorowsky may never have made his film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but plenty came out of the attempt — including, one might well argue, Blade Runner. Making that still hugely influential adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott and his collaborators looked to a few key visual sources, one of them a two-part short story in comic form called “The Long Tomorrow.”

The Long Tomorrow, by Moebius
As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of ‘The Long Tomorrow’. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic. When Europeans try this kind of parody, it is never entirely satisfactory, the French are too French, the Italians are too Italian … so, under my nose was a pastiche that was more original than the originals.

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And from The Long Tomorrow to Blade Runner and back to Dune, with the news that Denis Villeneuve, the director of the Blade Runner remake, will direct this new Dune remake.

Hilary and Johann

It’s pretty scary reading about how talented Hilary Hahn is, how much she achieved at such a young age. But, as this interview with Guernica shows, it’s all about the music, and Bach in particular.

Hilary Hahn: Entering the sublime
When I play the solo repertoire, the way Bach writes is pretty progressive. I believe he would be considered somewhat experimental even by today’s standards. He was a tonal composer as opposed to atonal or twelve-tone and he used acoustic instruments because he had nothing else; but when I listen to the progressive aspect of his music, I feel like he’s a master of disguise. You are going with him in one direction—you get there, but you realize you are not where you thought you were. You look around and notice a door, but when you get to the door, it’s a wall. You look around and notice that the floor you’re standing on is a trap door. You go down the trap door to what you think is the basement, but it’s the attic. Bach feels a lot like that—a really interesting fun house. The dimensions are different from a distance than when you get up close.

Hilary Hahn – J.S. Bach: Sonata for Violin Solo No. 1 in G Minor, BWV 1001 – 4. Presto

Otherworldly talent. But as this video shows, she is human.

Hilary Hahn does the Ling Ling Workout

The first Fury Road

Someone on Quora joked about the differences between driving in the UK and US: “in the US you drive straight ahead, ridiculously slowly, on lanes three times as wide as your already huge automobile; whereas in the UK you drive microscopic cars with 25 manual gears along roads that are made for half a car’s width, and you will do it with courage, or be shot for cowardice at the next traffic light.”

It raised a smile and got me thinking of Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first feature film, and its leisurely introduction. The chase seems positively sedate by today’s standards, but it’s a thrillingly tense ride nonetheless. Don’t tell anyone, but you can watch the whole film on YouTube.

Duel (1971)

It’s a great film, but I appreciated it all the more after watching this documentary about it, listening to Steven Spielberg explain how he tackled minuscule production schedules, truck casting and makeup, and demanding studios.

Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 1

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Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 2

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Duel – A Conversation with Steven Spielberg – Part 3

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And here’s an interesting fan-made comparison of the film’s locations, then and now.

Duel / Duell by Steven Spielberg – then and now 2018 (Manfred Furtner)

Elections everywhere

Polarisation seems to be the political theme, these days.

Socialists strengthen hold in Spain election
Spain’s Socialist Party strengthened its hold on the government on Sunday in the country’s third national election since 2015, with nearly complete results showing growing political polarization and party fragmentation. […] An anti-immigration and ultranationalist party, Vox, won its first seats in Parliament, a major shift in a country that long appeared to be immune to the spread of far-right movements across Europe, in part because of the legacy of the Francisco Franco dictatorship.

This doesn’t sound good.

Benin’s government has shut the internet ahead of an election that has no opposition
The West African nation now joins the list of African states, including Sudan, DR Congo, and Egypt who have limited online access ahead of key elections, political referenda, or anti-government protests this year. Activists say the cut-offs usually have significant economic, political, and social costs, particularly given how popular messaging apps like WhatsApp are crucial for voters, journalists, and election observers.

Some places are getting it right, though.

It only takes India a month to set up a better election than the US
To be sure, the Indian election is a thing of wonder. Its scale alone is mind-boggling: More than a million polling stations, 900 million voters, nearly 2,300 parties. It is also an impressive work of democratic logistics that can teach a few lessons to the rest of the world, including countries with far more resources, like the US.

Meanwhile.

The French Ambassador is retiring today. Here’s what he really thinks about Washington.
Let’s look at the dogma of the previous period. For instance, free trade. It’s over. Trump is doing it in his own way. Brutal, a bit primitive, but in a sense he’s right. What he’s doing with China should have been done, maybe in a different way, but should have been done before. Trump has felt Americans’ fatigue, but [Barack] Obama also did. The role of the United States as a policeman of the world, it’s over. Obama started, Trump really pursued it. You saw it in Ukraine. You are seeing it every day in Syria. People here faint when you discuss NATO, but when he said, “Why should we defend Montenegro?,” it’s a genuine question. I know that people at Brookings or the Atlantic Council will faint again, but really yes, why, why should you?

 

Don’t move!

So today marks the start of National Stationery Week.

National Stationery Week
People of the world rejoice and wave your favourite pen in the air! National Stationery Week is the perfect time to celebrate your stationery pot, a colourful pencil case or your favourite pen.

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Yes, it could be seen as a glorified advert for office supplies, but it raises some interesting questions too about the changing nature of communication and expression.

Does writing by hand still matter in the digital age?
The decline of writing by hand – particularly among young people and children – has been in the news. Last month, paediatric doctors warned that children were finding it difficult to hold pencils due to excessive use of technology. Letters to Santa are increasingly sent by email, and Cambridge University is piloting the use of laptops instead of pen and paper for selected exams after requests from students. Some academics have noted the “downward trend” in students’ handwriting.

But what of the role that handwriting plays in learning and development? And with technology changing how we live and work, what place does handwriting have in the modern classroom? These were the questions put to the teachers, academics and specialists in education and technology at the Guardian’s roundtable event on 27 February.

I sit opposite computer screens all day at work, but am happy to stick with my pen and scraps of paper when making notes.

Singing appliances

Living with perfect pitch and synesthesia sounds like being in a Disney musical.

Living with perfect pitch and Synaesthesia – what it’s really like
That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

(Via Laura Olin’s newsletter)

Shakespeare’s dirty books

Here’s an eye-catching headline.

Is Shakespeare’s DNA hiding in the Folger Library’s vault? “Project Dustbunny” aims to find out
The Folger Shakespeare Library’s underground storage facility stretches a full block beneath the building, protected by a nine-inch-thick steel bank-vault door. It houses about 260,000 historically significant books, along with manuscripts, documents, and even costumes saved from 19th-century productions. But could the Capitol Hill research library—the largest collection devoted to the Bard in the world—also contain, quite literally, Shakespeare himself?

That possibility is the longest of long shots, but it’s one potential outcome of an ongoing effort at the Folger dubbed Project Dustbunny—so named because it involves analyzing human DNA and proteins harvested from dirt inside the Folger’s old books.

Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts, is keen to distance herself from such nonsense, however.

Wolfe is especially skeptical of this idea; when I met up with her in the conservation lab, before I could even ask about it, she volunteered her lack of enthusiasm for such efforts. “The first thing to say,” she told me, “is our goal isn’t necessarily to identify a famous person who has touched an item. But that’s the thing people are most interested in: Did Shakespeare hold this book?”

Might this be how a future ‘Jurassic Bard’ movie starts?

But why stop there?

Charlotte Brontë’s hair found in ring on Antiques Roadshow, say experts
“I’ve got goosebumps now thinking about it. It’s got a hinge on it, and inside there’s plaited hair, I think it may be the hair of Charlotte Brontë,” the woman told the show’s jewellery expert Geoffrey Munn.

Munn said there was “very little reason to doubt” this.

And here’s another.

Italians try to crack Leonardo da Vinci DNA code with lock of hair
“We found, across the Atlantic, a lock of hair historically tagged ‘Les Cheveux de Leonardo da Vinci’ and this extraordinary relic will allow us to proceed in the quest to carry out research on Da Vinci’s DNA,” said Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of the museum and Agnese Sabato, president of the Leonardo da Vinci Heritage Foundation in a statement.

A breath of fresh air?

An unusual souvenir.

Cans of ‘air of an outgoing era’ go on sale in Japan for £7.50 ahead of new emperor
The nation is currently counting down to next Tuesday when Emperor Akihito, 85, will make history by become the first Japanese monarch in centuries to abdicate, bringing to an end the era known as Heisei.

The following day, his son Crown Prince Naruhito will step into his shoes as emperor of Japan, marking the beginning of an official new era for the nation, called Reiwa, meaning beautiful harmony.

The cans of air are the latest in an increasingly inventive range of products celebrating the imperial transition – from commemorative toilet paper to mega-sized burgers.

This report is ███████████

So what are we to make of the Mueller Report on Trump’s dealings with Russia? Here’s The Economist‘s take on it.

What to make of the Mueller report: Robert Mueller’s magnum opus
The first 170 pages concern Russia. […] Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s campaign chair, who was deep in debt to a Russian oligarch, shared internal polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, one of his Kiev-based employees with apparent links to both that oligarch and Russian intelligence. Even Rick Gates, Mr Manafort’s right-hand man, believed Mr Kilimnik was a “spy”. That did not stop Mr Manafort from meeting Mr Kilimnik. George Papadopoulos, a junior foreign-policy advisor who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators, tried to let the campaign know early on that the Russians had compromising material on Mrs Clinton (nobody thought to tell the FBI). Donald Trump junior arranged a meeting with a Russian lawyer who promised “dirt” on Mrs Clinton. And of course Mr Trump himself was pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow project until just five months before the election, while simultaneously pushing for better relations with Moscow. None of this may have been illegal, but had voters known about it they might have made a different choice.

[…]

The report’s second part deals with obstruction of justice. […] The striking thing about this section, when read in full, is how self-wounding Mr Trump’s behaviour has been. Had he simply kept quiet, and let Mr Mueller complete his investigation into his campaign’s links into Russia, the obstruction investigation never would have happened. Instead, he interfered clumsily on many occasions, allowing the special counsel to amass a damning record of the president’s truculence, dishonesty and contempt for federal investigators.

The report itself is quite an important, historical document, though.

Mueller Mania is in full swing, and people are paying a pretty penny for the free report
The Mueller Report is available for free on the Justice Department’s site (here). But that didn’t stop publishers from printing it for profit.

Simon & Schuster’s Scribner published a version “presented with related materials by The Washington Post” — available for $10.22 as a paperback or $7.99 on the Kindle — that topped Amazon’s best-seller rankings. Publisher Skyhorse’s version, featuring an intro by a Harvard law professor, claimed the #2 spot (at $9.20 in paperback); publisher Melville House’s straight-up version (just $7.27) took the #3 spot. […]

People aren’t buying books, they’re buying mementos
The fact that people bought enough copies of a free report to mint not 1 but 3 separate best-sellers may seem unlikely, or even downright dumb.

But it’s not the first time a government document has gone big: The Starr Report (about President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky) and the Pentagon Papers both became popular best-sellers after printing in 1998 and 2011, respectively.

Perceptive publishers know that people don’t buy these books for the info they contain, but the emotions they evoke: A physical Mueller Report meta-memorializes months of dramatic, scandalous, and conversation-starting news cycles in a single, boring book.

You would have thought we had had enough by now.

Remember when Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, shot himself in the foot with some sloppy document formatting? Mueller’s report wasn’t much better, initially — it was just a collection of scanned images.

The official PDF of the Mueller report has been updated in a subtle but important way
The decision immediately elicited groans from people trying to search the report for juicy details. A giant file of images has no text to search. It was also condemned by a group involved in setting technical specifications for the portable document format: “This deliberate and unnecessary act made the document substantially harder for anyone and everyone to use, forever,” wrote Duff Johnson, executive director of the PDF Association, in a delightful review of the file’s nerdiest details.

News organizations and Mueller fanatics quickly addressed this problem by running the PDF through a process known as optical character recognition (OCR) to add searchable text to the document. So, to review: The Mueller report was written on a computer, then printed out on paper, scanned back into digital images, and finally regenerated into text using software.

Of course, not everything in the report has been made available to us. As this image from FlowingData shows, a significant amount of redaction has taken place.

Redacted
The redacted version (pdf) of the Mueller report was released today. Here’s the thumbnailed view for a sense of the redactions.

this-is-1

And as this Quartz Obsession post explains, redaction is big business.

Redaction
95 million: Documents classified by the United States in 2012

2 million: Employees the National Archives estimates it would take, given a year and a half, to review one year’s worth of current classified output of one US intelligence agency

14,462: Peak size of the US government’s World War II-era Office of Censorship, whose duties included redacting letters

But let’s end this on a more creative note.

The Trump-era boom in erasure poetry
Published less than a month after Trump’s first executive order banned citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days, “Form N-400 Erasures” is an example of erasure poetry, a poetic form that has spiked in popularity since Trump’s elections galvanized a culture of resistance online. Also known as blackout or redaction poetry, this is a type of poetry created from the substrate material of an existing text. Obscure many of the words, these poems command, and you will find the sentences that have been there all along.

this-is-2

While erasure can mimic the violence of the state, it can also expose the human cost of suppression, and symbolically restore a voice to the silenced.

Erasing the language of Trump, on the other hand, provides the particular satisfaction of watching Trump say exactly what he means, stripped of bombast. That perverse pleasure drives “When You Win It’s Winning,” Ariel Yelen’s erasures of four of his speech transcripts. Here, Trump is hyperbolic and boastful as ever, but in erasing certain words, Yelen has him articulate the implications of his rhetoric. “I / want / a new America / an / America / so / reckless / s / o / disastrous / s / o / chao / t / ic /,” he says. “I / am / what is wrong with this country.”

I wish I knew

My son was playing a new piece of piano music following his lesson yesterday that really caught my attention. I didn’t recognise the title, ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, but if you’re a TV viewer in the UK of a certain age, you’ll certainly recognise the tune.

Barry Norman “Film” theme tune

It reminds me little of the South Bank Show theme tune — wonderful music we’d hear each week that I didn’t fully appreciate had a life outside that TV programme.

It was written in 1963 by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas and served as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s. Here it is performed by the Billy Taylor Trio, after a wonderfully laid back intro.

Billy Taylor Trio – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

But if it’s a recording with soul you’re after, here’s the irrepressible Nina Simone. This just builds and builds.

Nina Simone – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Audio)

And here’s an amazing live performance from Montreux 1976.

Nina Simone – I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free (Montreux 1976)

The Luke Ascending

The Classic FM Hall of Fame 2019 was unveiled over the weekend, and Ralph Yawn Williams’s The Lark Ascending is in the top spot yet again. But don’t worry if, like me, you’re not a fan — here’s a much improved version.

The Star Wars theme combined with the Lark Ascending is unashamedly populist
Nobody saw this coming: Star Wars has never been so pastoral in this arrangement for keyboard.

The Luke Ascending – Star Wars/Vaughan Williams mashup

The image at the top of the post is a screenshot from one of the marvellous Auralnauts Star Wars Saga videos. I’m sure everyone’s seen these by now, but you must check them out if not.

How they all began

Enough of their ending, what of their beginning? Here’s a fascinating account of the earliest books and how they became established.

The birth of the book: on Christians, Romans and the codex
Our continued modern censure of the Romans for not adopting the codex sooner (its basic components were well known for millennia) forgets the most important resource in the Roman world: slaves. Slaves would copy, collate, retrieve, read and rewind book rolls for busy patricians (such as Pliny).

Today’s changing landscape of digital reading also presents a world dominated by negative externalities: invisible, poorly paid labourers scanning old books (viz, the occasional disembodied hand in latex glove flashed across a Google Books page); environmental and health challenges of mining rare earths and working long shifts to assemble our electronic devices; and the fossil fuels burned into the atmosphere to flash bytes of literature into storage arrays and send them on their way.

We’re all in this together. Right?

Hanna Rosin from NPR has noticed a worrying trend. It’s not just that we’re caring less, but that we’re reducing who we care for.

The end of empathy
Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it’s not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else’s perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!

It’s strange to think of empathy – a natural human impulse — as fluctuating in this way, moving up and down like consumer confidence. But that’s what happened. Young people just started questioning what my elementary school teachers had taught me.

But surely we’re all in this together.

I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people
Personally, I’m happy to pay an extra 4.3 percent for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re a fundamentally different person than I am.

I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

She’s been restored before

The images of Notre Dame yesterday were just horrible. Let’s look at some different ones (with apologies for relying on Google Translate).

1840 – Notre Dame before restoration
The success of Hugo’s novel and the beginning of the Romantic Current will contribute to a renewed interest in French Gothic heritage. In 1843, a vast restoration program will be launched at the initiative of Prosper Mérimée, then Inspector General of Historical Monuments. Architects Viollet le Duc and Lassus will win the competition.

Started in 1845, the titanic construction site will last twenty years. Every effort will be made to restore the cathedral to its former splendor. The arrow and the Red Gate will be restored among others. A hundred or so statues, inspired by other cathedrals, will be made under the careful control of the architects.

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(Via a Benedict Evans newsletter.)

Meanwhile.

Notre Dame fire hoaxes are already spreading on social media
Online conspiracists are baselessly trying to blame the fire on their political opponents.

YouTube’s new fact-check tool flagged Notre Dame fire coverage and attached an article about 9/11
The widget showing information about the Sept. 11 terror attacks appears to have been triggered by a new feature YouTube is testing to provide “topical context” around videos that might contain misinformation.

Process unclear

Another day, another flowchart trying to explain the remaining Brexit options, at the end of this article from the BBC on Jeremy Hunt’s take on recent events.

Brexit: Jeremy Hunt says ‘absolute priority’ to avoid European polls
The foreign secretary said the public would find it “hugely disappointing” to be asked to send MEPs to Brussels. Asked if it could be a disaster for the Tories, he told the BBC “in terms of polling it certainly looks that way”.

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Brexit: What happens now?
The UK was originally due to leave on 29 March. The first extension shifted that date to 12 April. But now the UK now has just over six months to decide what it wants to do.

Government ministers are continuing talks with Labour leaders to try to find a compromise deal. If they can agree, MPs will be given a chance to vote on the deal. If not, a range of alternative options will be put to them instead.

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