A unasinous balls-up

From shambles to disaster, the vocabulary of failure has had an unhappy airing this results seasoniNews
Synonyms for “fool” abound in the dictionary, including the “saddle-goose” and “buffard” from the 1400s, “little Witham” from the 1500s (apparently after a village whose inhabitants were well known for their stupidity), and “niddicock”, “noddypeak” and “dizzard” from the 1600s. All of them led up to today’s “nincompoops”, “wallies”, “sapheads”, “chumps” and “plonkers”.

If, hypothetically speaking, all those fools came together and acted in extreme combined idiocy, they could be described as “unasinous”, a word with only a single quotation in the OED, from 1656, but which is surely due a comeback. A riff on “unanimous”, it means “united in stupidity”, and comes from the Latin unus, “one”, and asinus, “ass”. Worth bearing in mind when the buffards begin to bray.

Please rewind — and stay behind

You can now stay over at the world’s last Blockbuster video storeMoss and Fog
This final store in Bend, Oregon has been operating for years, and has a pretty loyal following. The Coronavirus, however, has put a major dent in their business. Now they’ve opened up the store as a rentable Airbnb, outfitted with a little living room, and all the nostalgia you’d want out of a video store.

75 years later, it’s now 100 seconds to midnight

It was the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier this month. This account, from The New Yorker, is from 1946.

HiroshimaThe New Yorker
The children were silent, except for the five-year-old, Myeko, who kept asking questions: “Why is it night already? Why did our house fall down? What happened?” Mrs. Nakamura, who did not know what had happened (had not the all-clear sounded?), looked around and saw through the darkness that all the houses in her neighborhood had collapsed. […]

In a city of two hundred and forty-five thousand, nearly a hundred thousand people had been killed or doomed at one blow; a hundred thousand more were hurt. At least ten thousand of the wounded made their way to the best hospital in town, which was altogether unequal to such a trampling, since it had only six hundred beds, and they had all been occupied. The people in the suffocating crowd inside the hospital wept and cried, for Dr. Sasaki to hear, “Sensei! Doctor!,” and the less seriously wounded came and pulled at his sleeve and begged him to come to the aid of the worse wounded. Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skillful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.

A long time ago, but still within people’s lifetimes.

Why we must remember the reality of HiroshimaNew Statesman
That August day, I was told, was colourless. The sky, like the radioactive rain that left my grandfather bedbound for months following the attack, had turned black, and it seemed to stain the city and everyone in it. “It was like someone had smeared ink over Hiroshima,” my grandparents said. When they remembered the bombing, it was in black-and-white images.

The inscription on the cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park reads, “Let all the souls here rest in peace for we shall not repeat the error.”

A statement on the bombings of Hiroshima and NagasakiBulletin of the Atomic Scientists
[O]n this awful 75th anniversary, the Doomsday Clock stands at 100 seconds to midnight. The Science and Security Board calls on all countries to reject the fantasy that nuclear weapons can provide a permanent basis for global security and to refrain from pursuing new nuclear weapons capabilities that fuel nuclear arms races.

Japan PM sparks anger with near-identical speeches in Hiroshima and NagasakiThe Guardian
The apparent decision not to tailor the statements to each city’s experience angered survivors of the bombings, who are known as hibakusha. “It’s the same every year,” Koichi Kawano, head of a hibakusha liaison council in Nagasaki, told the Mainichi Shimbun. “He talks gibberish and leaves, as if to say, ‘There you go. Goodbye.’ He just changed the word ‘Hiroshima’ to ‘Nagasaki.’ He’s looking down on A-bomb survivors.”

Hiroshima marks 75th anniversary as survivors call for changeCBS News
“Could you please respond to our request to sign the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty?” Tomoyuki Mimaki, a member of a major survivors’ group, Hidankyo, implored Abe. “The milestone 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing is a chance” to change course. Abe insisted on Japan’s policy not to sign the treaty, vaguely citing a “different approach,” though he added that the government shares the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.

And here’s an article about another survivor.

This 392-year-old bonsai tree survived the Hiroshima atomic blast & still flourishes todayOpen Culture
Three decades later, in a rather remarkable act of forgiveness, the Yamaki family gifted the pine (along with 52 other cherished trees) to the United States, during the bicentennial celebration of 1976. Never did they say anything, however, about the traumas the tree survived. Only in 2001, when a younger generation of Yamakis visited Washington, did the caretakers at United States National Arboretum learn the full story about the tree’s resilience. The tree survived the worst mankind could throw at it. And kept its beauty intact.

Not all parts of our natural environment are as resilient, however.

Deep in the ocean’s trenches, the legacy of nuclear testing livesAtlas Obscura
Scientists recently discovered evidence of radioactive carbon, also known as “bomb carbon,” in the tissues of crustaceans—up to seven miles below the surface, in iconic trenches such as the Mariana, Mussau, and New Britain, according to a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters.

How to build a nuclear warning for 10,000 years’ timeBBC Future
“This place is not a place of honor,” reads the text. “No highly esteemed dead is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.”

It sounds like the kind of curse that you half-expect to find at the entrance to an ancient burial mound. But this message is intended to help mark the site of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) that has been built over 2,000 feet (610m) down through stable rocks beneath the desert of New Mexico. The huge complex of tunnels and caverns is designed to contain the US military’s most dangerous nuclear waste.

And if you want your own piece of US military nuclear architecture, something’s come up for auction.

For sale: A Cold War bunker and missile silo in North DakotaAtlas Obscura
Keller says calls have been coming in about the site from all over the country. Some calls have been from history buffs, some from entrepreneurs, and some from doomsday preppers, seeking a solid foundation on which to build their bunkers. “You’ve got Covid-19, you’ve got civil unrest—I got a call from one guy who thought this’d be a great place to have a server farm,” Keller says. “It’s safe, secure, and tornado-proof.”

It’s in Fairdale, North Dakota, just off 111th Avenue, and online bidding is available, if you’re interested.

On the shelf

I’ve a number of posts here about libraries, but I’ve never seen one with such substantial shelving.

The Old Cincinnati Library before being demolished, 1874-1955Rare Historical Photos
Built in 1874 on the site reserved for an opera house, the Old Cincinnati Library was a thing of wonder. With five levels of cast iron shelving, a fabulous foyer, checker board marble floors and an atrium lit by a skylight ceiling, the place was breathtaking. Unfortunately that magnificent maze of books is now lost forever.

Some rather more genteel shelving on display here.

One of the world’s oldest reading rooms at the University of OxfordThe Mind Circle
This collection of images of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, while not of the most impressive library interior, are actually extremely rare, and most likely the best images of the interior available anywhere online. Photography of this library, which dates as far back as 1487 during the Medieval period, is usually completely prohibited as it contains many priceless original books, including manuscripts of the gospels of the Bible from the 3rd century, a Shakespeare First Folio and a copy of the Gutenberg Bible (one of 42 left in the world).

Black lives, history, respect, status matters

From across the USA …

These pictures show just how large the protests against police brutality really areBuzzfeed News
Across major cities and small towns, people turned out en masse to demonstrate against the police killing of George Floyd and to call for change in the US.

… and across the decades …

This is what 100 years of racial protest looks like in AmericaBuzzfeed News
From the 1917 silent protests in the streets of Manhattan to the recent national unrest following the killing of George Floyd, these pictures capture the long and tumultuous struggle for racial justice in the US.

… to cities all around the world, right now.

Images from a worldwide protest movementThe Atlantic
Over the weekend, demonstrations took place around the world, with thousands of people outside the United States marching to show solidarity with American protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In many places, marchers also voiced their anger about systemic racism and police brutality within their own countries.

From our streets, to our museums …

‘Time to give back the swag, guys!’ British Museum unleashes Twitter storm with statement on Black Lives MatterThe Art Newspaper
“Look, I love you guys, but maybe you ought to sit this one out,” said one Twitter user, Jeff Pearce, a novelist and historian. “Unless you plan to return the looted Ethiopian treasures, the stolen Elgin Marbles and permanently return the Benin Bronzes.”

… and living rooms.

Little Britain pulled from iPlayer and Netflix because ‘times have changed’BBC News
In 2017, Lucas said: “If I could go back and do Little Britain again, I wouldn’t make those jokes about transvestites. I wouldn’t play black characters. Basically, I wouldn’t make that show now. It would upset people. We made a more cruel kind of comedy than I’d do now.” Walliams has also said he would “definitely do it differently” in today’s cultural landscape.

Times may have changed for some, but change is moving too slowly for others.

Windrush scandal: only 60 victims given compensation so farThe Guardian
Only 60 people have received Windrush compensation payments during the first year of the scheme’s operation, with just £360,000 distributed from a fund officials expected might be required to pay out between £200m and £500m.

Tracking mortality, 350 years ago

I know a number of people are keeping diaries at the moment, to set down our thoughts and experiences of these strange days. We’re not the first to do that, of course.

Diary of Samuel Pepys shows how life under the bubonic plague mirrored today’s pandemicThe Conversation
For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.

The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”

Just a few months later …

In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials. Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.

At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”

Samuel Pepys wasn’t the only one keeping a record of events.

Coronavirus: Defoe’s account of the Great Plague of 1665 has startling parallels with todayThe Conversation
HF [the narrator] becomes obsessed with the weekly mortality figures. They charted deaths by parish, giving a picture of how the plague was moving around the city. Still, it was impossible to be sure who had died directly of the disease, just as in the BBC news today we hear people have died “with” rather than “of” COVID-19. Reporting was difficult, partly because people were reluctant to admit there was an infection in the family. After all, they might be locked in their homes to catch the disease and die.

HF is appalled by those who opened up taverns and spent their days and nights drinking, mocking anyone who objected. At one point he confronts a group of rowdies and gets a torrent of abuse in return. Later, exhibiting one of his less appealing traits, he is gratified to hear that they all caught the plague and died.

Here’s a look at those Bills of Mortality in greater detail.

London’s dreadful visitation: A year of weekly death statistics during the Great Plague (1665)The Public Domain Review
As early as 1592, London parish officials had instituted a system for keeping track of deaths in the city, trying to curb the spread of the plague by tracking it and quarantining victims and those who lived with them. Since it was not then legally required to report deaths to a central authority, the officials hired “searchers of the dead”, whose job it was to locate corpses, examine them, and determine cause of death. These “searchers” were not trained in any kind of medicine. Typically they were poor, illiterate, older women whose contact with the infected isolated them socially and often brought their lives to an early end. They were also, in one of the more gruesome examples of gig work offered by history, paid per body. […]

In addition to the alarming number of plague deaths, Londoners, of course, continued to die by other means, both familiar and strange.

Many familiar maladies hide behind the enigmatic naming. “Rising of the Lights”, dreamy though it sounds, was a seventeenth-century term for any death associated with respiratory trouble (“lights” being a word for lungs). “Griping in the guts” and “Stopping of the stomach” were similarly used for deaths accompanied by gastrointestinal complaints. “Spotted feaver” was most likely typhus or meningitis.

Many labels — such as “suddenly”, “frighted”, and “grief” — speak of the often approximate nature of assigning a cause (not carried out by medical professionals but rather the “searchers”). “Planet” referred to any illness thought to have been caused by the negative influence/position of one of the planets at the time (a similar astrological source lies behind the name Influenza, literally influence).

Meanwhile.

This guy used an old Samsung monitor to make a legendary plague doctor maskDesign You Trust
Employees of the IT industry sometimes have to communicate with users. And they also need protection – like the legendary mask of the plague doctor, but with nuances. User of Pikabu social network used an old Samsung SyncMaster monitor to make this mask by himself. The result is amazing!

Staying safe, then and now

Are things getting better? It doesn’t feel like it.

Paris salons, Shanghai Disney reopen despite global alarm over second coronavirus waveReuters
News that the “reproduction rate” – the number of people each person with the disease goes on to infect – had surged back to 1.1 in Germany cast a shadow over the reopening of businesses ranging from Paris hair salons to Shanghai Disneyland. A rate that stays above 1 means the virus is spreading exponentially.

Look at the numbers, they say. But I’ve seen so many I’m becoming curve-blind.

COVID-19 CoronaVirus infographic datapackInformation is Beautiful
COVID-19 #Coronavirus latest data visualized. Updated 11th May. Created by David McCandless, Omid Kashan, Fabio Bergamaschi, Dr Stephanie Starling, Univers Labs

staying-safe

Some are saying we’ve been here before, but this time’s different. Thankfully.

Coronavirus is very different from the Spanish Flu of 1918. Here’s how.The New York Times
In 1918, the world was a very different place, even without the disruptive influence of World War I. Doctors knew viruses existed but had never seen one — there were no electron microscopes, and the genetic material of viruses had not yet been discovered. Today, however, researchers not only know how to isolate a virus but can find its genetic sequence, test antiviral drugs and develop a vaccine.

Virus-afflicted 2020 looks like 1918 despite science’s marchAP News
As in 1918, people are again hearing hollow assurances at odds with the reality of hospitals and morgues filling up and bank accounts draining. The ancient common sense of quarantining is back. So is quackery: Rub raw onions on your chest, they said in 1918. How about disinfectant in your veins now? mused President Donald Trump, drawing gasps instead of laughs over what he weakly tried to pass off as a joke.

There are so many coronavirus myths that even Snopes can’t keep upThe Washington Post
“The fact-checking industry is so undervalued and underinvested,” he said, “that even with this traffic boom and the rise in prominence and responsibility at this moment when people are relying so heavily on fact-checkers for credible information, we have no hopes for scaling up our businesses.”

1918 feels too distant now, it’s hard to relate to it. But perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that we find it hard to relate to.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed millions. So why does its cultural memory feel so faint?Slate
Reading letters from survivors of the flu pandemic, one of the things that strikes me over and over again, that’s so moving, is that almost every one of them says, “I never forgot; I never forgot; I never forgot.” [Researching the book], I interviewed one 105-year-old woman who had the flu in Richmond, when she was 8. And in my cheery way, I said something like “Why do you think people forgot the flu?” And she looked at me like I was crazy. “We didn’t forget! We didn’t ignore it! We didn’t forget.” She’s 105, right? And she was like, “It never faded—not for us.”

Meet the 107-year-old woman who survived the coronavirus and Spanish fluThe Jerusalem Post
“It’s remarkable,” Shapiro said. “That’s all I can say. It’s just unbelievable. I think perhaps it’s because of her art that she’s still involved in.”

The numbers are crazy, “6 percent of the Earth’s population in just over a year,” according to this collection of images from the time.

Historical photos of the 1918 Spanish Flu that show what a global pandemic looked like in the 1910sDesign You Trust
The speed of the pandemic was shocking; the numbers of dead bodies overwhelmed hospitals and cemeteries. Quarantine centers, emergency hospitals, public use of gauze masks, and awareness campaigns were all undertaken swiftly to halt the spread. But as World War I was coming to a close, millions of soldiers were still traveling across the globe, aiding the spread of the disease.

staying-safe-2b

The flu was first observed in Europe, the US and parts of Asia before it quickly spread throughout the world. It was wrongly named the Spanish flu because it was first reported in the Madrid daily newspaper ABC. However, modern scientists now believe the virus could have started in Kansas, US.

Kansas, you say? Hmm.

staying-safe-5a

staying-safe-3a

Face masks, then. So what are our options (apart from using socks)?

Face Shield: How do we encourage mass adoption of an unwanted necessity?Joe Doucet
To try and create a face shield that people would actually want to wear rather than simply put up with, Joe Doucet has designed a shield with integrated sunglass lenses and arms that make them more practical and feel less alien and intrusive on the wearer than a typical face shield would. It is hoped that improving the basic face shield design will encourage far greater uptake of its usage and help everyone adjust to the “new normal” that awaits us.

staying-safe-4

The Micrashell Futuresuit lets you party like it’s 2099Design Milk
Taking design cues from sportswear brands like Yohji Yamamoto and Nike Lab, the Production Club Micrashell wraps an array of speculative environmental technologies within a futuristic athleisure design straight out of the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer. The Micrashell is intended to allow for human-to-human interaction in group settings with a virus-shielded and disinfectable air-tight suit, specifically for attendees of “nightlife and entertainment industries”.

staying-safe-6

Plastique Fantastique’s iSphere mask is informed by 1950s sci-fi comicsDezeen
Berlin-based art collective Plastique Fantastique has created an open-source, retro-futuristic face shield shaped like a fish bowl to protect wearers against coronavirus. The helmet-like design, called the iSphere, comprises two transparent, hollow hemispheres that have been secured together and cut to create a hole for the user to fit their head through.

staying-safe-7

Canevacci and Young wanted to bring an element of humour to a serious object for non-medical users.

Perfect!

Raise a glass to sprezzatura

It’s the weekend! I’ll drink to that, though perhaps not with one of these.

During the Renaissance, drinking wine was a fight against physicsGastro Obscura
The difficulty was the point. Courtiers were expected to embody the ideal of “sprezzatura,” a hard-to-translate word that combines the senses of elegance, sophistication, and nonchalance. In other words, you were supposed to be good at everything, without ever seeming to put any effort into it. What could be a better demonstration of sprezzatura than casually raising one of these sloshing, top-heavy goblets and taking a sip?

sprezzatura

You can see some of them being used in this painting from 1563, Paolo Veronese’s “The Wedding at Cana,” amongst some other wonderful details. Click through for a close-up.

sprezzatura-2

Curiouser and curiouser

Have you had a chance to promenade around any of the virtual galleries and museums I mentioned last week? Here’s another one to add to your list, the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. It’s definitely my favourite so far.

Virtually wander & weave through an enchanting odditorium of curiositiesMessy Nessy
It almost feels like you’ve clicked on something you shouldn’t have and suddenly, a door to internet Narnia has opened and you find yourself roaming the aisles of a huge maze of glass cabinets, overflowing with an insane amount of objects. You’ve stumbled into the cabinet of wonder that is the Pitt Rivers Museum. Indefinitely closed, like thousands of other cultural institutions around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic, this 136 year-old Victorian museum hiding within another museum in Oxford, England, is free to roam at the click of your mouse – every glass cabinet, every last aisle, all to yourself. And what a beautiful sight it is to discover, even if only from behind your screen for now.

curiouser-1

curiouser-2

curiouser-3

The language of Utopia can be yours for just $81,000

I’m not sure if Duolingo will be turning this into a new language course any time soon.

For Sale: Sir Thomas More’s Utopian alphabetAtlas Obscura
The characters in the Utopian language walk the line between Greek and geometric runes. There is no casing, just large circles, squares, triangles and lines, with various accents attached. It would be gobbledygook if not for its accompanying Latin translation, which speaks to the creation of Utopia and its singularity as a philosophical—and aspirational—place.

As I was reading that, I was getting Thomas More mixed up with Thomas Cromwell, something that has happened to the Wolf Hall actors playing those roles, too. But anyway.

Thomas More is the villain of Wolf Hall. But is he getting a raw deal?The Guardian
The other piece of influential writing that has helped emphasise More’s superior character is his own book, Utopia. A philosophical argument couched in the tale of a traveller who returns from an unknown land, it has furnished English literature with many enduring ideas – not least that of a Utopia itself; a perfect, unattainable society. Published in Latin in 1516, Utopia still intrigues and amuses readers despite having been around for half a millennium. In More’s imagined Utopia, property, goods and food are all shared among the households in each city and there is a heavy emphasis on agriculture, although some weight is given to academic learning as well. When it comes to government: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all,” he suggests.

That last line reminds me of that Groucho quote about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.

But perhaps $81,000 is a little steep for just one book. Maybe you’re just after something to fill your shelves.

Books sold by the linear footBoing Boing
So it turns out there’s an entire industry of books hand-picked and organized to look good, sold in bulk according to a variety of visual or conceptual themes. Color gradients is a hot trend in the world of books sold by the linear foot.

Just a few stores I found: Books by the FootZubal BooksThe Book BundlerDecades of Vintage and Booth & Williams all specialize in books sold for their aesthetic appeal rather than their contents.

language-utopia-1

Never mind the quality, feel the width.

Valentines cards, but with added acetic acid

Happy Valentine’s Day! Did you get any cards this year? Let’s hope you didn’t receive one of these.

The rude, cruel, and insulting ‘Vinegar Valentines’ of the Victorian eraAtlas Obscura
In the 1840s, hopeful American and British lovers sent lacy valentines with cursive flourishes and lofty poems by the thousands. But what to do if you didn’t love the person who had set their eyes on you?

In the Victorian era, there was no better way to let someone know they were unwanted than with the ultimate insult: the vinegar valentine. Also called “comic valentines,” these unwelcome notes were sometimes crass and always a bit emotionally damaging in the anti-spirit of Valentine’s Day.

valentines-cards-3

valentines-cards-4

OK, so let’s assume your Valentine shares your feelings and agrees to go on a date. What could possibly go wrong?

Stupid Cupid: Valentine’s Day disasters, as seen by waitersThe Guardian
While some of us make too much effort on Valentine’s Day, others haven’t even mastered the first rule of dating: don’t perv on someone who is not your partner. Stephenson-Roberts observes that “wandering eyes” are a common feature of the evening. Digital flirting isn’t unheard of, either. Peppe Corallo, bar manager at London’s Kitchen at Holmes, remembers one woman who suddenly started screaming at her boyfriend during dinner. Why? He had been checking Tinder at the table. She hurled her champagne in his face before storming out. Unsurprisingly, her sodden lover soon paid up and left too. “I felt bad for him in some ways, but at the same time, don’t put your phone on the table where your girlfriend can see,” Corallo advises.

Photography pioneer with a modern eye

Let’s take a step back from that self-congratulatory, sycophantic ceremony, and look at the cinematic imagery of Heinrich Kühn, regarded as one of the forefathers of fine art photography.

The astonishing cinematic autochrome photography of Heinrich KühnFlashbak
As cameras slowly changed during the 1890s, becoming lighter, more manoeuvrable, there grew a desire among photographs to create more artistic images. pictures that rivalled painting for their impressionistic beauty. One pioneer of this trend was Heinrich Kühn, a German-born amateur photographer. […]

From 1890 onwards, Kühn started working on creating his “total art” photographs. His pictures were described as “painterly” and “impressionistic” but to our modern eye look more like movie stills from some great, unreleased film.

photography-pioneer

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And talking of cinematic, here’s a fresh look at what would have been 1896’s nominee for best picture.

Neural networks upscale film from 1896 to 4K, make it look like it was shot on a modern smartphoneGizmodo
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat doesn’t have the same effect on modern audiences, but Denis Shiryaev wondered if it could be made more compelling by using neural network powered algorithms (including Topaz Labs’ Gigapixel AI and DAIN) to not only upscale the footage to 4K, but also increase the frame rate to 60 frames per second. You might yell at your parents for using the motion smoothing setting on their fancy new TV, but here the increased frame rate has a dramatic effect on drawing you into the action.

[4k, 60 fps] Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (The Lumière Brothers, 1896)YouTube

What would Louis Lumière have made of that, I wonder. As a reminder, here’s his original. The place looks a little different now. I wonder if they do requests to update other old film.

Don’t keep it to yourself

I read quite a lot, as most of us do—from books and newspapers, screens and  phones. But when was the last time you read aloud? Or had something read aloud to you?

As Meghan Cox Gurdon explains, in this extract from her book The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud In the Age of Distraction, reading aloud is something that goes way back.

Rediscovering the lost power of reading aloudLiterary Hub
So far as we can tell, starting in Paleolithic times, in every place where there are or have been people, there has been narrative. Here is Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic recorded on clay tablets in cuneiform script 1,500 years before Homer. Here are the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, vast Sanskrit poems dating from the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Here too is the thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon legend Beowulf, the Icelandic Völsunga saga, the Malian epic Sundiata, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Persian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian ferment of The Thousand and One Nights, and the 19th-century Finnish and Karelian epic the Kalevala. This list is necessarily partial.

Once upon a time, none of these stories had yet been fixed on a page (or a clay tablet), but were carried in the physical bodies of the people who committed them to memory. Long before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press, and 1,000 years before cloistered monks and their illuminated manuscripts, the principal storage facility for history, poetry, and folktales was the human head. And the chief means of transmitting that cultural wealth, from generation to generation, was the human voice.

Mad Mormon maps

Via Kottke, a map from 1899 illustrating what can happen when geography, religion and history get mashed together — a map of the ancient inhabitants of North and South America.

Mormon theological geography… on a nine-foot-high banner!Boston Rare Maps
The map was an official production of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) in Independence, Missouri. The RLDS (known since 2001 as the Community of Christ), is a reformist branch of the Church of Latter Day Saints, established in 1860.

mad-mormon-maps-1

It’s an impressive object for sure, and I do love a good map, but I was most struck by the summary of what this group of people actually believe.

Ten Lost Tribes: Latter Day Saint movementWikipedia
The Book of Mormon is based on the premise that two families of Israelites escaped from Israel shortly before the sacking of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and that they constructed a ship, sailed across the ocean, and arrived in the New World as founders of Native American tribes and eventually the Polynesians.[18] Adherents believe the two founding tribes were called Nephites and Lamanites, that the Nephites were white and practiced Christianity, and that the Lamanites were rebellious and received dark skin from God as a mark to separate the two tribes. Eventually the Lamanites wiped out the Nephites around 400 AD, leaving only dark skinned Native Americans.

All I know of the Mormons is what I’ve learnt by sitting through school concerts that have included songs from that musical, so that was quite illuminating. Native Americans are really Jewish?

Happy New Decade

Happy New Year, and all that. At last, we’re in a decade with a normal name.

decades

Decadesxkcd

2020 is such a futuristic-sounding year.

It’s 2020 and you’re in the futureWait But Why
It’s also weird that to us, the 2020s sounds like such a rad futuristic decade—and that’s how the 1920s seemed to people 100 years ago today. They were all used to the 19-teens, and suddenly they were like, “whoa cool we’re in the twenties!” Then they got upset thinking about how much farther along in life their 1910 self thought they’d be by 1920.

To give us a sense of the decade we’ve just left behind, here, via Kottke, is a list of all the best ‘best of’ lists, if that makes sense.

Lists: Best of the 2010s decade
This page, compiled by @fimoculous, aggregates all of the lists related to 2010s decade.

As well as what you’d expect to find (34 lists in the Books category, and 120 lists in the Film category), there are a few more interesting ones.

Here’s an extra one to add to the list, before our futuristic hubris catches up with us.

From Glass to Fire Phone, these were the decade’s top tech flopsWired UK
Facebook Portal: In 2018, though, a scandal-infected Facebook was attempting to put out fire after fire – the Cambridge Analytica breach, Russian troll ads, the UN’s report on its role in Myanmar. With Facebook the absolute worst word in privacy and trust, no-one wanted a Facebook camera and microphone in their homes, especially one which the company admitted would track call data in order to serve ads to users.

The future of reading in safe hands

The end of paper? The end of books? As Leah Price discusses in this excerpt from her latest book, What We Talk about When We Talk about Books: The History and Future of Reading, it’s the same old story.

Books won’t dieThe Paris Review
In hindsight, we can see how rarely one technology supersedes another: the rise of the podcast makes clear that video didn’t doom audio any more than radio ended reading. Yet in 1913, a journalist interviewing Thomas Edison on the future of motion pictures recounted the inventor declaring confidently that “books … will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” By 1927 a librarian could observe that “pessimistic defenders of the book … are wont to contrast the actual process of reading with the lazy and passive contemplation of the screen or listening to wireless, and to prophecy the death of the book.” And in 1966, Marshall McLuhan stuck books into a list of outdated antiques: “clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs—all are obsolete.”

Throughout the nineteenth century and again in the twentieth, every generation rewrote the book’s epitaph. All that changes is whodunnit.

And here’s a somewhat related article, asking us to see our current worries about technology ruining everything in a wider, historical context.

Pessimism v progress – The Economist
The New York Times sums up the encroaching gloom. “A mood of pessimism”, it writes, has displaced “the idea of inevitable progress born in the scientific and industrial revolutions.” Except those words are from an article published in 1979. Back then the paper fretted that the anxiety was “fed by growing doubts about society’s ability to rein in the seemingly runaway forces of technology”. …

The most important lesson is about technology itself. Any powerful technology can be used for good or ill. The internet spreads understanding, but it is also where videos of people being beheaded go viral. Biotechnology can raise crop yields and cure diseases—but it could equally lead to deadly weapons.

Technology itself has no agency: it is the choices people make about it that shape the world.

Well yes, to an extent. But are we completely free in our choices, or are we being manipulated a little?

I do think these Economist illustrations are very clever, though, like that one of Johnson’s V for victory sign.

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Unrolling history

A roll of paper was sealed in a jar and buried under a Buddhist shrine near the northern Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Two thousand years later, and it’s made its way to the United States and the Library of Congress in a Parker Pen box. Of course you’re going to want to know what it says, but ‘fragile’ doesn’t begin to cover it. 

How the Library of Congress unrolled a 2,000-year-old Buddhist scrollAtlas Obscura
The actual unrolling happened in June, 2006, on a Saturday, to reduce the risk of air currents created by coworkers and better control the humidity and temperature of the library’s paper lab. Krueger was present with only two others: Yasmeen Khan, a senior rare book conservator at the library, and Mark Barnard, the chief conservator at the British Library. “One cannot underestimate the nerves of steel required for such a project,” Krueger says. “We had only one chance for success.”

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Be happy!

This study into happiness came out last month, but it’s interesting to read through this in light of the general election we’re currently in the middle of.

Why the UK was at its cheeriest in the 1920s
Says who? A study. By psychology researchers at the University of Warwick. They analysed millions of books and newspapers going back to 1825, counting key words that signify happiness and sadness.

And they found? That in the UK, we were happiest in the 1920s and after the end of the second world war. And least happy in 1978 during the winter of discontent.

Can money buy happiness? Two centuries’ worth of books suggest it can
By examining millions of books and newspaper articles published since 1820 in four countries (America, Britain, Germany and Italy), they have developed what they hope is an objective measure of each place’s historical happiness. And their answer is that wealth does bring happiness, but some other things bring more of it.

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Let’s hear from the researchers directly. It’s not all about the money.

What makes us happy? We analysed 200 years of written text to find the answer
What we found was remarkable. While gross domestic product (GDP) is often assumed to be associated with a rise in well-being, we found that its effect on well-being throughout history is marginal at best. GDP has increased fairly consistently over the last 200 years in the four countries that we looked at, but well-being has moved up and down dramatically over that time.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that well-being appears to be incredibly resilient to short-term negative events. Wars create dramatic valleys in well-being, but soon after the war well-being frequently recovers to its pre-war levels. Lasting changes to our measure of happiness occur slowly, over generations. …

Across countries, an extra year of life (in terms of longevity) is equivalent to a 4.3% rise in GDP. A year of internal conflict is equivalent to a 30% drop in GDP. Policies that seek to enhance longevity, for example through providing better access to healthcare throughout life, may therefore be better than policies that only attempt to increase GDP, which is increasingly being challenged as a measure of progress.

Remember, remember

Every year we’re asked to remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. But how many of us really know what this means, this annual reinforcing of historical, institutionalised hatred and prejudice?

In her latest newsletter, The Conversation’s deputy editor Jo Adetunji compares our slightly bored commemorations today with the nightmare people went through at the time.

Before coming to the UK from Canada, I had no clue what Bonfire Night was. It was vaguely explained to me by friends as a celebration of some man named Guy Fawkes and his failure to blow up parliament on November 5th, 1605. Traditionally, the occasion is marked with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of Guy Fawkes effigies. Or, as I’ve found in London, paying a £10 entry fee to stand in a wet, muddy park in some corner of the city, shivering while you wait for a five-minute fireworks display soundtracked by The Pirates of the Caribbean and Star Wars.

Of course, the real history behind Bonfire Night is far more dramatic than my recent celebrations let on. England in 1605 was bitterly divided – except back then, it was a religious schism taking place between the Protestants and the Catholics following the Reformation. Following the foiled attempt by Fawkes and his 12 co-conspirators, it only got worse. Accusations of treason, heresy, and even witchcraft, were used to persecute perceived enemies of the crown. Catholics fled north to escape, settling in places like Lancashire, which was cast as lawless – and full of witchcraft.

Through the lens of Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate, a fictional account of England in the early 1600s, Shareena Z Hamzah writes about the horrendous treatment of Catholics and women accused of murder by witchcraft. While Bonfire Night is a reminder of Fawkes, it should also be a reminder of the innocent people caught up in England’s troubled past.

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The calls to continually burn these effigies (these days, I think, a thing of the past) remind me a little of a calmer, slow-motion Two Minutes Hate event.

It would be nice to think such religious intolerance is consigned to the history books. Alas:

In China, every day is Kristallnacht
In a cultural genocide with few parallels since World War II, thousands of Muslim religious sites have been destroyed. At least 1 million Muslims have been confined to camps, where aging imams are shackled and young men are forced to renounce their faith. Muslims not locked away are forced to eat during the fasting month of Ramadan, forced to drink and smoke in violation of their faith, barred from praying or studying the Koran or making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

And — in possibly the most astonishing feature of this crime against humanity — China has managed to stifle, through 21st century repression and age-old thuggery, virtually any reporting from the crime scene.

Dreaming of past Christmas presents

Nostalgia overload! New Argos site lets you browse 45 years of winter catalogues
For many, flicking through the Argos catalogue was, and possibly still is, a pre-Christmas tradition. Immersing yourself in that weighty tome and imagining how nice it would be to get that special present for Christmas, perhaps even circling it, was all part of the big build up.

Now, the retail giant has created the ultimate tool for wistful nostalgia with its new Book Of Dreams website. Whether you want to look for the toys you never got for Christmas, see how much prices have changed or show your kids the sort of things you dreamt of unwrapping on December 25, you can take a very long stroll down memory lane.

For Proust, it was a madeleine. For me, it was those silly Kodak disc cameras and teak effect cassette storage cabinets from the 1982/83 Argos catalogue.

The Book of Dreams | Argos

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I wonder if the archive took its name from this Bill Bailey routine…

Bill Bailey – Argos