Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

28 FEBRUARY, 2012

From Invisible Ink to Cryptography, How the American Revolution Did Spycraft and Privacy-Hacking

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What personal data has to do with George Washington’s dabbles in chemistry.

Our personal data is among today’s most valuable information currency. It’s often hard to determine what part companies own, what part the government owns, and what part, if any, is entirely our own — provided a third party hasn’t already sold it to someone else.

These intrusions of privacy aren’t new. For centuries, the post office had every intention of reading your mail. Beginning in 16th-century France, the “black chamber” or cabinet noir was set up in governments throughout Europe to scan incoming mail for traitorous or politically useful correspondence. The “black chambers” were run by the government and hidden from the public, even though their presence was obvious to all: letters were opened, copied, their seals re-waxed by specialists.

“In the eighteenth century, there was no expectation of privacy when the postal system was used,” writes John Nagy in Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution — a fascinating lens on the Revolutionary War as a war of information, where no correspondence could be sent that wasn’t first encrypted and whichever side hid theirs the best would come out on top. Here are five key ways the British and the Americans duped each other:

INVISIBLE INK

Invisible ink, far from the magical compound pop culture has made it out to be, has been around for ages — a book on invisible writing was published in 1653. Invisible ink involves any acid which will weaken the paper, causing it to darken and burn if heated. Benedict Arnold used it in his traitorous correspondence with the British, and the Americans used it just as often.

Instead of heat, George Washington used a chemical form of agent and reagent, and he was quite often on the verge of running out of one or the other as he moved from camp to camp. When he would write to his supplier requesting more, he would always refer to the solution as “medicine.” Eventually, a lab was set up for the express purpose of making invisible ink for the general.

An invisible ink letter treated with a chemical reagent from British spy Benjamin Thompson, 1775 (From the Collection of the Clements Library)

ENCRYPTION

Codes were perhaps the most common form of encryption, and they ranged from the simple substitution of one letter for one number, or a shifted alphabet, to the diplomatic ciphers practiced by Benjamin Franklin, who chose for his cipher text an appropriately obscure snippet of French prose. Washington used at least four cipher alphabets: one transposition, one substitution, and two varieties of the pigpen cipher, which was derived from Freemasonry. (At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson even used a special cipher just for the Lewis and Clark expedition.)

Four ciphers used by Washington, the pigpen cipher is on the bottom. (Library of Congress)

MASKING

For his personal correspondence, British General Henry Clinton would handwrite a regular letter and then create a mask for it, a cutout either in the shape of an hourglass or a paper with little windows in it, which would fit over the original letter to reveal the secret message. Presumably sent separately, the mask, or “cypher paper,” would sometimes not make it to the recipient, causing one friend in England to muddle through a letter from Clinton for “some time, and not until several readings, ere I found there was a secret centre.”

A masked letter sent by General Henry Clinton, 1777

THE DICTIONARY

The most popular mode of encipherment was something both sides had access to: Entick’s Spelling Dictionary. Diplomat John Jay used it heavily to creative elaborate codes with page numbers, dots, and substitutions. With thirteen editions in existence at the time of the war, it was essential that both parties have the same version. Sometimes, the key reference book was less well known: Benedict Arnold used the first volume of the fifth Oxford edition of the Commentaries on the Laws of England for his coded correspondence.

An 1802 edition of Entick's Spelling Dictionary, which was also pocket-sized

DECEPTION

Washington couldn’t spend as much money on spies as the British, but he could at least trick any spy that might report on the American army: he would ship sand and pretend it was gunpowder, he prepared inflated troop returns to hand off to double agents, he famously had his troops dress as Indians.

George Washington, 1772

In addition to offering a fascinating slice of history, Invisible Ink is also a reminder that access to information was, and remains, a game-changing bargaining chip of power.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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27 FEBRUARY, 2012

How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love

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Why prestige is the enemy of passion, or how to master the balance of setting boundaries and making friends.

“Find something more important than you are,” philosopher Dan Dennett once said in discussing the secret of happiness, “and dedicate your life to it.” But how, exactly, do we find that? Surely, it isn’t by luck. I myself am a firm believer in the power of curiosity and choice as the engine of fulfillment, but precisely how you arrive at your true calling is an intricate and highly individual dance of discovery. Still, there are certain factors — certain choices — that make it easier. Gathered here are insights from seven thinkers who have contemplated the art-science of making your life’s calling a living.

PAUL GRAHAM ON HOW TO DO WHAT YOU LOVE

Every few months, I rediscover and redevour Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham’s fantastic 2006 article, How to Do What You Love. It’s brilliant in its entirety, but the part I find of especial importance and urgency is his meditation on social validation and the false merit metric of “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.

[…]

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

[…]

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

More of Graham’s wisdom on how to find meaning and make wealth can be found in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age.

ALAIN DE BOTTON ON SUCCESS

Alain de Botton, modern philosopher and creator of the “literary self-help genre”, is a keen observer of the paradoxes and delusions of our cultural conceits.

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he takes his singular lens of wit and wisdom to the modern workplace and the ideological fallacies of “success.”

His terrific 2009 TED talk offers a taste:

One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.

HUGH MACLEOD ON SETTING BOUNDARIES

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod is as well-known for his irreverent doodles as he is for his opinionated musings on creativity, culture, and the meaning of life. In Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity, he gathers his most astute advice on the creative life. Particularly resonant with my own beliefs about the importance of choices is this insight about setting boundaries:

16. The most important thing a creative per­son can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it. The more you need the money, the more people will tell you what to do. The less control you will have. The more bullshit you will have to swallow. The less joy it will bring. Know this and plan accordingly.

Later, MacLeod echoes Graham’s point about prestige above:

28. The best way to get approval is not to need it.

This is equally true in art and business. And love. And sex. And just about everything else worth having.”

LEWIS HYDE ON WORK VS. LABOR

After last year’s omnibus of 5 timeless books on fear and the creative process, a number of readers rightfully suggested an addition: Lewis Hyde’s 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of which David Foster Wallace famously said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

In this excerpt, originally featured here in January, Hyde articulates the essential difference between work and creative labor, understanding which takes us a little closer to the holy grail of vocational fulfillment:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a term for the quality that sets labor apart from work: flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know creative labor.

STEVE JOBS ON NOT SETTLING

In his now-legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address, an absolute treasure in its entirety, Steve Jobs makes an eloquent case for not settling in the quest for finding your calling — a case that rests largely on his insistence upon the power of intuition:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

ROBERT KRULWICH ON FRIENDS

Robert Krulwich, co-producer of WNYC’s fantastic Radiolab, author of the ever-illuminating Krulwich Wonders and winner of a Peabody Award for broadcast excellence, is one of the finest journalists working today. In another great commencement address, he articulates the infinitely important social aspect of loving what you do — a kind of social connectedness far more meaningful and genuine than those notions of prestige and peer validation.

You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

If you can… fall in love, with the work, with people you work with, with your dreams and their dreams. Whatever it was that got you to this school, don’t let it go. Whatever kept you here, don’t let that go. Believe in your friends. Believe that what you and your friends have to say… that the way you’re saying it — is something new in the world.

THE HOLSTEE MANIFESTO

You might recall The Holstee Manifesto as one of our 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life, an eloquent and beautifully written love letter to the life of purpose. (So beloved is the manifesto around here that it has earned itself a permanent spot in the Brain Pickings sidebar, a daily reminder to both myself and you, dear reader, of what matters most.)

This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often. If you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t like your job, quit. If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.

The Holstee Manifesto is now available as a beautiful letterpress print, a 5×7 greeting card printed on handmade paper derived from 50% elephant poo and 50% recycled paper, and even a baby bib — because it’s never too early to instill the values of living from passion.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2012

William Gibson on Cultivating a “Personal Micro-Culture”

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On the building blocks of creativity and acquiring a sense of what feels right.

I’ve been reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, the fantastic collection of nonfiction essays, including some never-before-printed ones, by the great novelist William Gibson. In the introduction, in discussing what makes great fiction, Gibson articulates one of the most fundamental principles of creativity — and, like all great insight on writing, at the heart of it is a truth that applies to the creative process in just about any domain, well beyond literature:

We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction. Learning to write fiction, we learn to listen for our own acquired sense of what feels right, based on the totality of the pleasure (or its lack) that fiction has provided us. Not direct emulation, but rather a matter of a personal micro-culture.

I love this concept of “a personal micro-culture” — what an eloquent way to capture the most important aspect of who we become, as creators in any medium and as human beings. Design legend Paula Scher knows that. (“[A design is] done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head,” she said.) Artist Austin Kleon knows that. (“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” he said.) The blossoming of our combinatorial creativity hinges on a cultivation of our personal micro-culture. How are you cultivating yours?

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