Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

12 JANUARY, 2012

The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story of Humanity’s Oldest Analog Computer, circa 150 B.C.

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30 gear wheels of anachronism, or what a 2,000-year-old shipwreck reveals about the evolution of technology.

On their way back to Greece from Africa in October 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kontos and his crew of sponge divers encountered a severe storm, so they decided to wait it out on the small island of Antikythera. To pass the time, they set out to dive for sponges off the island’s coast. The first of them, Elias Stadiatos, had barely submerged 60 meters when he laid eyes on a striking sight — a heap of human and horse corpses lying on the sea bed. He rushed frantically to the surface and reported what he had seen. Kontos, suspecting carbon dioxide may have caused his fellow to hallucinate, dove into the water himself and soon resurfaced with the bronze arm of a statue. Over the two years that followed, Greek sponge divers and archaeologists recovered multiple artifacts from the shipwreck, estimated to have sunk some 2,000 years prior.

In 1902, however, archaeologist Valerious Stais made the most momentous discovery of all, and he did so from the dry safety of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — embedded in one of the pieces of rock, he noticed a discernible gear wheel. Nicknamed the Antikythera mechanism, this object became known as humanity’s oldest analog computer — an ancient mechanical device designed to calculate astronomical positions. Some scholars have even prized its historic value higher than the Mona Lisa’s.

In Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, Jo Marchant tells for the first time the fascinating story of an obsessive quest to unravel the mystery of this ancient clue that could rewrite the history of technology. It’s a story about unsung heroes, raging egomaniacs, and death-defying treasure hunts, told with a scholar’s scientific rigor and a storyteller’s penchant for intrigue.

The Antikythera mechanism’s fragments are now known to contain some 30 gear wheels, with instructional inscriptions scribbled on every surface. But what makes the discovery most extraordinary is its seeming anachronism — a curious fold in the space-time continuum of technological history. Marchant observes:

According to everything we know about the technology of the time, it shouldn’t exist. Nothing close to its sophistication appears again for well over a millennium, with the development of elaborate astronomical clocks in Renaissance Europe.”

More than an archaeological curiosity, its mystery — which took more than a century to decode — fundamentally challenges our knowledge not only about what the Ancient Greeks were and what they were capable of, but also about the timescale on which technology evolved as humanity grappled with ordering the heavens and understanding time.

Thanks, Mark

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10 JANUARY, 2012

Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses: 18 Rants by Mark Twain

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How to commit 114 out of 115 possible violations of literary art in less than a single page.

On the heels of yesterday’s New Year’s resolution to read more and write better channeled through a reading list of 9 essential books on reading and writing comes Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences — an epic, exquisite rant by Mark Twain, listing eighteen rules of fiction violated in popular writer James Fenimore Cooper’s final tale, The Deerslayer. So peeved was Twain by critics’ acclaim of the story that he unpacked it with meticulous, delightfully spiteful attention to distasteful detail, his fury culminating in one passage where “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115.”

It was written in 1895, the same year as this amusingly appalling list of don’ts for female cyclists.

Take it away, Mark:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Twain concludes:

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

The entire essay is very much worth a read, a curious Frankensteining of Twain’s signature wit and his earnest annoyance. It’s available as a free Kindle book (that’s $0.00) from Amazon and downloadable in several formats from Project Gutenberg.

To avoid these offences, and many more, pay heed to Mark Twain’s and other literary icons’ words of wisdom in Advice to Writers.

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09 JANUARY, 2012

How the Dutch Got Their Bike Paths

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What The Netherlands can teach us about child safety and mass protests as effective policy-benders.

We’ve come a long way since the time of Victorian don’ts for women on bicycles as the humble bike has become an agent of economic and cultural change. This fascinating short documentary traces the rise of The Netherlands’ famous bicycle paths and examines the sociocultural factors that enabled it, from mass protests to government policy. A living testament to the “build it and they will come” ethos, these safe cycling paths not only vastly improved the city’s traffic system efficiency, but they also helped address an oil and economic crisis, lower carbon emissions, and reduce child casualties by 350%, all thanks to intelligent and focused policy decisions — something to think about as we head into an election year in the tragically car-centric U.S.

The solution was found in the political will on a national and municipal level, with both decision-makers and planners, to deal with this situation by turning away from car-centric policies and making way for alternative transport like cycling.”

Cycling protest tour, Amsterdam, 1979.

Painting cycle lanes, Amsterdam, 1980

HT MetaFilter

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