Category Archives: History

Sunday Spam: toast and vegemite

This week, I feel the need to emphasise that linking does not imply uncritical endorsement!

Philip Roth and Wikipedia

There’s only one problem with this: Roth’s open letter is at best the (justifiably) aggrieved and confused ramblings of a man ignorantly discussing what he does not understand or remember, and at worst a deliberately malicious act inspired by nothing more than a misguided desire to flip us the Vs and maybe get paid by the New Yorker on the way.

In Response to Amanda Palmer

Is it noble to volunteer for a cash-rich for-profit enterprise? And what about when taking the gig means that you’re taking food from the mouths of people whose day job it is to play these kinds of high-pressure, high-profile concerts and ensure that the audience won’t be let down?

Is it noble to devalue the role of musicians by suggesting that their years of training and their tens of thousands of hours of practice is worth little more than a beer and a high-five?

Headspace withdraws support for RU OK? Day

In a statement released this afternoon, the organisation said it was uncomfortable about the support RU OK? Day was receiving from Gloria Jean’s because of the coffee chain’s $30,000 donation to the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Girls gone Wilder

Rose Wilder Lane’s life story is arguably way more interesting than that of her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Owen Jones: William Hague is wrong… we must own up to our brutal colonial past

As India became increasingly crucial to British prosperity, millions of Indians died completely unnecessary deaths. Over a decade ago, Mike Davis wrote a seminal book entitled Late Victorian Holocausts: the title is far from hyperbole. As a result of laissez-faire economic policies ruthlessly enforced by Britain, between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation needlessly. Millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain even as famine raged. When relief camps were set up, the inhabitants were barely fed and nearly all died.

Philosophy gender war erupts after call for larger role for women

It began with a private email last month from one established male philosopher to four others: Proceed with a Berlin-based conference that features 14 male speakers and no women, the writer said, and I will essentially launch a campaign to take you down professionally.

How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything

Or as my friend and sci-fi novelist Robin Sloan put it to me, “I maintain that this is Google’s core asset. In 50 years, Google will be the self-driving car company (powered by this deep map of the world) and, oh, P.S. they still have a search engine somewhere.”

Legal myths about the Assange extradition

Whenever the Julian Assange extradition comes up in the news, many of his supporters make various confident assertions about legal aspects of the case.

Some Assange supporters will maintain these contentions regardless of the law and the evidence – they are like “zombie facts” which stagger on even when shot down; but for anyone genuinely interested in getting at the truth, this quick post sets out five common misconceptions and some links to the relevant commentary and material.

The Joke’s on You

[Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert, in particular, have assumed the role of secular saints whose nightly shtick restores sanity to a world gone mad.

But their sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Pawns in the War on Drugs

Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.

On being X-ish

Now that I have described how I graduated into Generation X, I have a secret to confess: I’m starting to think that that might not be entirely wrong.

Let’s stick to cohort effects here, since it’s supposed to be a cohort term. And I should add that this is all very trivial stuff, I’m focussing on media, pop culture and technology experiences.

One of the major temptations of identifying as Generation Y had to do with pop culture. My teenage years were just past the wave of slackers and grunge and Seattle. I probably heard Nirvana’s music during Kurt Cobain’s lifetime, but I didn’t know of them as a thing until about a year after he died. I’ve never even seen Reality Bites, but Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder are both 10 years older than I am, and their movies weren’t about my cohort.

I am, frankly, Spice Girls age: not the pre-teen thrilled girls waving things to be signed, but the teenagers who actually paid for the albums with their own money. (I didn’t, for reference. We were a Garbage family.) Britney Spears was born in the same year as me, and her biggest year career-wise was my first year of university. And obviously, when the term “Generation Y” was coined, the stereotypes of late university/early career certainly fit my friends better than the Generation X tags with managerial aspirations. The return of cool people listening to cheesy pop: Y-ish. So that was where I felt I fell. (In case anyone I knew at high school drops by: I realise I wasn’t cool. But you may have been, and don’t think I didn’t notice you danced to the Spice Girls.)

But then, there’s certainly a few small societal boundaries between me and people who were born in 1986. (I have a sister born in 1986, and thinking about the five years between us is often telling.) Starting at a global level, I was reading Tony Judt’s Postwar recently (recommended, I’ll come back to it here at some point), and I was struck because I remember 1989.

To be fair, that’s more important if one lives in Europe, which I never have, but most of my first detailed memories of newsworthy events have to do with the revolutions of 1989 and the 1990 Gulf War. I remember the USSR, again, from the perspective of a young child who was growing up in Australia, but still. I can read the science fiction people smirk about now, the fiction with the USA and USSR facing off in 2150, and remember, a little bit, what that was actually about. This is, well, frankly, more than a little X-ish.

While we’re talking about defining events, I recall that quite a lot of people talked about the children who won’t remember 9/11. (And by children, I now mean 15 year olds, of course.) Obviously this is more important in the USA, perhaps a little like the European children (by which I mean 25 year olds) who don’t remember 1989 in Europe. I obviously remember 2001, and moreover remember the geopolitical situation in the years before it quite vividly too, and that latter is again, more than a touch X-ish.

Turning to technology, which is fairly defining for me, we’ll start with Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Leaving aside the age effect where shortly everything cool will be against the natural order of things, it’s noticeable to me that the Web and email and so on fall in the “can probably get a career in it” bracket for me. Well, obviously not truly (the first version of the SMTP specification, which still more or less describes how email works today, was published in 1982), but my late teenage years were exactly the years when suddenly a lot of Australian consumers were on the ‘net. Hotmail was founded when I was 15 and I got an address there the following year. (icekween@, the address has been gone since 1999 and I’ve never used that handle since, partly because even in 98/99 it was always taken. But, actually, for a 16 year old’s user name I still think that was fairly OK considering some of the alternatives.)

In short, it was all happening in prime “get a career in it” time for me, and not coincidentally I am at the tail end of the huge boom in computer science enrolments and graduates that came to a giant sudden stop about two years after I finished. Frankly, X-ish. My youngest sister and her friends didn’t get excited about how they were going to become IT managers and have luxury yachts as a matter of course. (Well, partly age and partly not being jerks, there.) It’s a lot harder to get the “just a natural part of the way the world works” people excited about it.

Diagnosis: tailing X.

Book review: The Commission

Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

This is a major contrast to Steven Levy’s In the Plex. Yes, obviously the subject matter is pretty far removed, but aside from that Shenon is all critical sources and critical distance here. If someone was involved in the 9/11 Commission, Shenon and his sources have some criticism of that person. Well, at least if someone was either a commissioner or a senior staffer, that is: it seems that a lot of his sources were more junior staffers, and so there is a touch of reverence in the treatment of them. (On the other hand, what other sources are there going to be?)

Impressively, Shenon seems to have managed this while continuing to get comment from Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director and the person who is by far the most consistently criticised. (Well, possibly excepting Condoleezza Rice, but the Clinton and Bush White Houses, the FBI, the CIA and so on are all more in a cameo role here.) Shenon has gone on to publish all the correspondence he had with Zelikow, but I haven’t read it.

The result is, frankly, a rollicking good read. The major difficulty I have with the book is the difficult I had, while reading it, of remembering the truth of the story: the actual dead people in the towers, the planes, and the wars. It’s all shocking and fascinating: both the failures that led to the dead people (the FBI’s contempt for counter-terrorism, the Bush White House’s diminished focus on terrorist threats prior to September 2001 and subsequent laser focus on Iraq and so on) and the politicking, silliness and compromises that the Commission made both by necessity and by choice.

Some of it is forehead-slapping: the NSA was apparently keen to cooperate with the Commission and set up a special secure reading room within walking distances of their office, which the Commission then proceeded to almost totally and inexplicably ignore, with the result that probably no one other than the NSA has gone through their material in any detail to this day. Some of it is more necessary compromises: US politics made it pretty unlikely that Bush and Cheney were going to be ripped to shreds.

Read it if: you are interested in US politics, you are interested in interpersonal politics in formal situations, you are interested in how the victors write history.

Note: the Commission’s own report is both sold by various bookstores and available for free. There’s a seemingly good e-book conversion by a third party.

Sunday Spam: scrambled eggs and pesto

I have Instapaper now! Which means I read more stuff. Which means that every so often I will share things with you. On Sundays, sometimes.

This week is biased towards American stuff, because Instapaper’s Browse page tends towards longer stuff from The New Yorker, The Atlantic and so on.

On the Overton window : Thoughts from Kansas

This is one post in a series of discussions among skeptics about whether they should apply skepticism to evaluating their own outreach (see Skepticism means caring about evidence for the main thrust of that). This is an interesting side-note, which is that the Overton window, which is often cited casually by at least some of my activist friends, is not actually a very rigorous or reliable phenomena. (The idea of the Overton window is that the existence of radical voices helps establish a moderate version of the radical’s position by including that radical position in the window of visible opinion.)

Domestic aviation and a carbon price

Robert Merkel sketches out some sums suggesting that on various models, pricing carbon and other climate effects into Australian domestic air travel still makes flying cheaper than high speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne.

Can the Middle Class Be Saved?

Don Peck in The Atlantic on the growing gap between the upper-middle (or “professional middle”) and upper-class of Americans (the top 15% or so) and the rest of the middle-class, particularly the non-college educated. Has some interesting observations on gender too, namely that while service and caring jobs are growing in number and manufacturing and construction shrinking, men are not making the switch to the growing fields.

The Youth Unemployment Bomb

More typical Instapaper Browse fodder, this time from Business Week. Revolutions, unrest, and un(der)employed, highly educated, young adults.

Open Source Report: Is Defective by Design getting any traction at all?

An older link I was sent earlier this year as part of a discussion about geeks wanting to make sure their activism makes sense to people who aren’t already converts. It’s criticising the Free Software Foundation’s Defective By Design campaign.

The Attempt to Understand Puerperal Fever in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries: The Influence of Inflammation Theory

I dug this up after a discussion about the process of discovering that puerperal fever could be greatly reduced by birth attendants washing their hands before attending. This is an overview of the eighteenth and nineteenth century theorising about what caused puerperal fever, namely a tension between inflammation theory (a theory that blood was pooling in some part of the body, setting off a general inflammation chain-reaction and requiring blood-letting) and putrid theory, that the body had been poisoned by some external matter and the fever was either the result of this poison or an attempt to throw it off (this theory regarded bloodletting as harmful and focussed on protecting the post-partum woman from breathing fresh air, in many cases).

The interesting thing here, not directly addressed in this link, is that the sheer disgustingness of dissecting corpses and not washing your hands before attending a childbirth is only obvious to us because of germ theory. In fact, regular hand-washing as etiquette is really an artefact of that (see also Karl Schroeder on science-informed etiquette this week). Sometimes the puerperal fever sequence is portrayed as if man-midwives must have been actively callous or hateful to not be washing their hands: in fact, it’s (more?) that they entirely lacked any theoretical framework for believing that what you touched half an hour ago had any serious impact on what you were touching now.

Was Aaron Swartz Stealing? I haven’t been following closely, so this was a good overview from a point of view a little closer to my own perspective on copyright than US governments.

I was pleased to come across this, again via Browse, because previously I’d only read the indictment text.

Digitising letters

I was talking to Valerie Aurora and others on Twitter over the last day talking about Ada Lovelace’s letters, and whether there are copies freely available publicly.

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that many/most letters by historical figures are held in private collections. The collectors are often not doing it for the sake of public history: they are either doing it for family history, or collecting letters in the way one might collect artwork, including for monetary value. Access might or might not be granted by the owners to people wanting to use the letters as source material for biographies and so on. Sometimes a volume of letters (or diaries) might be directly published (eg Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters, which contain excerpts ordered and edited for biographic interest, or Margaret Smith’s The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, which I think is a more complete edition), however the editor of the letters will assert copyright, not unreasonably perhaps given the editing chores and the addition of footnotes, context and so on.

Lovelace’s letters themselves are out of copyright, if I understand correctly (in the US, which is likely to be the strictest, it seems unpublished works authored prior to 1978 are held to the author’s death+70 years rule) but a public domain resource would need to be typed up from the letters themselves rather than from anyone’s existing editions.

It seems what would be most useful would be high definition scans of the letters themselves, without the scanner asserting copyright, hosted by the Internet Archive or similar. Turning these into high quality text transcripts is not trivial, but probably amenable to the efforts of, for example, Distributed Proofreaders, who now provide most of Project Gutenberg‘s new material. Therefore a campaign encouraging people who own collections of historical letters to allow images to be made available is the missing link. Is there such a campaign, or is one needed?