Category Archives: History

Reading #61: The Inquisition, Vikings, and Cossacks

I’m skipping twenty or so books I’ve failed to write about in a timely manner in favor of some more recent ones.

London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets London Under by Peter Ackroyd

I love London, history, underground things, and spooky things–therefore this was a pleasure to read. It’s not a linear history or narrative, more a series of vignettes focusing on different underground aspects of London (sewers, wells, lost rivers, Roman ruins, the Underground itself). I could fault it for its glancing and non-specific references to things I then had to look up elsewhere (like the Roman bath-house in the basement of a Thames-side office building) but I enjoyed the looking up as well. The next time I visit London I’ll try to find some of the hidden sights–the Clerk’s well at Clerkenwell, the spots where you can hear the underground rivers flowing, and the section of Roman wall in the middle of a car park.

The CossacksThe Cossacks – Leo Tolstoy

The preschool my kids attend has a fundraising auction every year. This year one of the things up for auction was a large set of Russian books (in translation) along with a bottle of vodka. I’d only read two of the set before and was unable to resist bidding. So … now I’m committed to reading all of them. Easing my way in, I started with an early and short Tolstoy novel, The Cossacks.

It’s a little odd to be reading it when Cossacks are actually in the news, but it’s a fine romance–more romantic toward the place and the people Tolstoy and his wealthy Moscow hero encounter than a woman, though there is a woman. Read it when you’re in the woods.

 The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at The End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Short, sweet, creepy, and a little brutal. All very history / memory / loss / childhood (and creepy things) and so very like The Graveyard Book or Coraline, except for adults.


God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern WorldGod’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World – Cullen Murphy

Quick summary: The Inquisition–Cullen Murphy’s not a fan. It’s a very opinionated history. On the other hand, the various Inquisitions were pretty nasty, and don’t have a lot of defenders. Murphy does a nice job of laying out the different Inquisitions that have existed and their interrelationships (something I was totally unclear on before reading this).

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths – Nancy Marie Brown

Two books in one. One is a history of Snorri Struluson, author of the Prose Edda and ultimate source for a large majority of everything we know about Norse legend. Sadly, I found this (the majority of the book) pretty dry, even as I understood it shouldn’t be–Snorri is a central figure in Icelandic history even apart from the Edda. It shouldn’t have been dull, but it was. The other part of the books talks about the process through which the sagas (Snorri’s and others) found their way into other histories, art, literature, right on up to Wagner, Tolkien, and the Marvel Comics version of Thor. That part was well done and fascinating.

I do love that 700+ years after he dies you can go visit his hot tub, though.

Also read:
A Crown of Renewal by Elizabeth Moon
Satisfying final chapter of a fantasy series that dragged on a bit long.

“Some day music will only be air”

It’s a story full of lists. Some day music will only be air. There will be no objects to hold or fetishize and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising. Nothing to put away in shoeboxes or spare cupboards and be embarrassed about. A chip inside us and inside the chip a route to all the music there ever was, which we can compile and organise and reorganise and merge with and feel into and in whatever way possible find the time to listen to, and we’ll need the time, all the time there is, all the time that music finds to press itself into.

Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (Paul Morley, 2003)

In 2005, Youtube was founded by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim as a video-sharing site. In 2012, Youtube surpassed radio and physical media as the “most popular way American adolescents listen to music.

Also in 2012, Psy made an estimated $7.9 million dollars from Gangnam Style, including $870,000 from ads attached to his more than 1 billion Youtube views, $2.4 million in income from iTubes downloads, and $4.6 million from commercial endorsements.

Here in 2013, this article traces the artistic, social, and corporate forces that combined to create the Harlem Shake phenomenon.

Music is not quite “only air” yet, but it is close. Books are next, then video. There are all sorts of complex and sticky legal, business, technical, and design questions to answer as we make this shift. But it is worth stepping back and realizing just how big a shift it is. Since 1877, we have taken in the notion that music can be (and eventually should be, and eventually always will be) made available in the form of physical media.

In honor of the shift, I bought a Sisters of Mercy EP this weekend. On vinyl. I could hear Roy from the I.T. crowd saying in my head …

Reading #58: Cooperatives, Stone Axes, and Soviets


The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and PlaceThe Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place
by John Abrams

John Abrams is the founder of South Mountain Company, a design & build worker-owned cooperative in Martha’s Vineyard. His books describes the history of the company, their choice to move to a worker-owned cooperative model, and their overall philosophy of work.

Those principles are:

  • Sharing ownership
  • Cultivating workplace democracy
  • Challenging the gospel of growth
  • Balancing multiple bottom lines
  • Celebrating the spirit of craft
  • Practicing community entrepreneurism
  • Thinking like cathedral builders
  • Committing to the business of place

All of these principles resonate strongly with me, and I have a lot of thinking to do about how they might be relevant in my less tangible design practice. Some of the principles (craft, challenging growth) are similar to the philosophy of the folks at 37 Signals. The workplace democracy angle can be found, at least to a limited extent, at Valve. Thinking like cathedral builders is, of course, a cornerstone of the open source movement. But I can’t think of a technology organization that embodies all of the principles in any meaningful way. I’d like to see one.

Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1
by Mark Twain, Harriet E. Smith (Ed.)

Mark Twain did not write a conventional autobiography, and it has not been published conventionally. He tried at various times and in various ways to get his life story down on paper, and what resulted was a mishmash of unordered (or at least unconventionally ordered) stories, notes, copies of old talks, and miscellany that kind-of sort-of adds up to life story. He also asked that it not be published until 100 years after his death–while portions of it have been published previously, the 2010 edition is the first definitive one. (And it’s only the 1st in a projected 3 volume set.) If you really, really like Twain (I do) this is worth reading, but you should know a few things before buying a paper copy:

I enjoyed it immensely, if slowly. And it has given me an idea for a project or two I’d like to work on.

A History of the World in 100 ObjectsA History of the World in 100 Objects
by Neil MacGregor

This is a companion book to the Radio 4 BBC / British Museum series of the same name. One hundred human-created objects that span our history on this planet, all from the British Museum, are shown, described, and put into context. It’s a lovely way to cruise around areas of history you know nothing about, and has the (intended) effect of driving home the sheer scale of human history. Plus you’ll never think all stone axes look alike again.


Red PlentyRed Plenty
by Francis Spufford

Red Plenty is an odd and powerful book. It is famously genre-confusing–if you look at the main text, it’s historical fiction, set in the recent past in the Soviet Union. But it has lots of footnotes and good portions of the text are nonfiction. And, due to a combination of its subject (science in the Soviet Union), it’s style, and some of its earliest and most vocal fans, it reads very much like science fiction. I thought it was, when I picked it up–and I’m not alone in this.

So it acts like a one-book vindication of Samuel Delany’s theories of genre. It’s also brilliant. Multiple viewpoint characters–some with multiple sections, some without–experience the brief post-Stalin period where (some) Soviet scientists attempted to create a materially wealthy society through central planning. And they experience the failure of that vision. It’s hard to summarize, but incredibly compelling (and tragic) in practice.

If you do read it, follow it with this intense online seminar on the novel at Crooked Timber, including posts by Spufford.

Report from Planet Midnight Report from Planet Midnight
by Nalo Hopkinson

From PM Press’s series of radical genre works. This includes two short stories, an interview with Hopkinson, and the core piece, a lecture she gave on race, ethnicity, and science fiction. Of the two short stories, I liked “Message in a Bottle” – it was usefully creepy, if that phrase makes any sense at all. The lecture is very direct, which is probably a good thing. Science fiction fandom can miss more subtle critiques sometimes.

Invisible ArmiesInvisible Armies
by Jon Evans

Sometimes I pull things off my wishlist without knowing why I put it on there in the first place. (I have a long wishlist.) In this case the acknowledgements include a bunch of my friends, so probably that’s why.

It’s a thriller, with a eco-terrorism theme. The first half is superb. The second half dissatisfied me–it felt (to me) that the later plot twists were there to be twisty, rather than emerging from the characters and situation.

Your first shell account

USF account
My first shell account.

You find the oddest things when you’re cleaning out old files. Like a printout for your first shell account. Mine dates from August 30th, 1993–only a short time after my arrival at New College (then part of the University of South Florida, they’ve since sensibly seceded). It was also only a few months after the 1.0 release of NCSA Mosaic, although I’m not sure I actually saw a web page in Mosaic until a few months later.

I don’t think still exists. I know my account doesn’t.

When & where was your first shell account?

Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary

Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, BL Royal 12 F xiii, f. 10v. Held and digitised by the British Library.

Let’s talk unicorns.

And I’m not thinking of Twilight Sparkle. Legends about the unicorn differ, as is typical with mythical beasts. Some tales describe interaction designers who are also talented visual designers. Others carry news of the rare designer who can also code. And the wildest tales of all describe a designer who is supernaturally capable of anything. These conflicting tales confuse those seeking to hire designers. And of course designers may be asking themselves: “Am I a unicorn, or not?” And since all designers consider themselves magical, if not actually sparkly, the potential for an identity crisis is acute.

A Designer Bestiary

But fret not! Found in a dusty library in a long-forgotten corner of the Bay Area, a tome once thought lost to the centuries has now been found. (It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of The Leopard”.) Within it’s pages lie descriptions of a vast assortment of legendary creatures. In a Medieval Bestiary, each entry would describe the characteristics, habits, and nature of a type of creature. Creatures were understood to be both real (if you sailed far enough you might meet one) and allegorical (the story of the Pelican echoes the Bible). Whether the descriptions within A Designer Bestiary are similarly allegorical is disputed by historians and Human Resources professionals alike.

Continue reading Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary

What I’m thinking about this week


  1. Boots! In January 1996, I was in London briefly, following a semester at Glasgow University. I bought a pair of Dr. Marten’s boots from the flagship store in . They were a sort of wingtip half boot, and I loved them. That’s them up on the right there. I’ve owned various boots over the years, and these were worn more and over a longer period of time than any others. Only a pair of boots acquired from Stompers in the 90s came close. The latter have been relegated to “garden use only” for a while now, and the Docs are just thrashed. Neither model is still made (though there are some things that come close). So last week, we went over to the Haight St. and I picked up a pair of Langstons in burgundy. And I’m in love all over again …
  2. Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix. Despite being married to someone who knows a great deal about art history, I basically knew nothing about this painting or the painter (though I knew the image). I listen to the wonderful In Our Time BBC podcasts, so I got a thorough introduction from Melvyn Bragg’s usual group of slightly dotty British academics. 
  3. The history of finance, and investment theory. Not my usual area, but I’m being guided by Adam Nash’s personal finance reading list and working my way through one by one. 
  4. Visual (and to some extent audio) design in classic science-fiction movies. (And one newer one.) The ones with the white palettes, san serif typefaces and shininess.  Think 2001 and Saturn 3.  Also Tron Legacy, but the shiny white bits rather than the glowy black bits. Plus sinister computer voices like Hal and GladOS from Portal. The fun part is this relates to the previous item (at least in my head).
  5. How most of the important developments & conflicts in online identity & authentication were predicted (sort of ) by Max Headroom
  6. Occupy Wall Street. There’s a lot to think about, but this post pointing out how strangely some of the OWS dynamic echoes Bruce Sterling’s 1998 book Distractions I had to reread it. Sterling has a knack for predicting future socio-political events in ways SF doesn’t usually quite do (see: drone assassinations in Islands in the Net). Distractions isn’t nearly as good a book as Islands in the Net, but it has it’s moments, and it certainly resonates today:

    “Why are there millions of nomads now? They don’t have jobs, man! You don’t care about ‘em! You don’t have any use for ‘em! You can’tmake any use for them! They’re just not necessary to you. Not at all. Okay? So, you’re not necessary to them, either. Okay? They got real tired of waiting for you to give them a life. So now, they just make their own life by themselves, out of stuff they find lying around. You think the government cares? The government can’t even pay their own Air Force.”

    “A country that was better organized would have a decent role for all its citizens.”

    “Man, that’s the creepy part — they’re a lot better organized than the government is. Organization is the only thing they’ve got! They don’t have money or jobs or a place to live, but organization, they sure got plenty of that stuff.”

The secret origin of “log in”

We do it dozens of times a day, every day, but why do we call it logging in?

“Log in” is one of those phrases that sounds weirder the more you say it. It’s ubiquitous in online life, though it does seem like it’s being slowly overtaken by “sign in” [note 1]. But where does the phrase come from in the first place?

Clearly, a job for the Oxford English Dictionary. Luckily you can usually access the online OED through your local public library site. Thanks, libraries!

Representative terminal, not actually a CTSS terminal, CC LevitateMe

The OED’s earliest listed usage of “log in” in the modern sense of “to open one’s on-line access to a computer” is from the 1963 publication Compatible Time-Sharing System from the MIT Computation Center. [2]  I’m not sure if this is truly the first usage of “log in”, but it would make sense if it was, as CTSS, started in 1961, was arguably the first time-sharing operating systems, and so possibly the first system that you needed to log in to. (Before that we only had batch processing systems).

Whether it was CTSS or a similar system, I envision an engineer, probably at MIT, somewhere between 1959 and 1961, needing to describe a new user command for the system they were creating.We get a lot of neologisms from these situations, and it’s very possible log in dates from just this moment in history.

CTSS Timeshare: A Programmer’s Guide, MIT press

It’s also possible that “log in” was used in a non-computer sense before time-share systems, but I haven’t seen it in print. But of course the “log” part, meaning to record something or someone, predates computers by hundreds of years.

Ship’s log CC David Churbuck

That usage is in turn a shortening from entering something into a “log-book”, or ship’s log, (or captain’s log, if you’re in Starfleet) which the OED defines as:

A book in which the particulars of a ship’s voyage (including her rate of progress as indicated by the log) are entered daily from the log-board.

The first listed usage of log-book or  logbook is from roughly 1689 ( J. Moore’s  New Syst. Math). By travelling back 250 years in time, we’ve gone from identifying ourselves within a computer system to entering the speed of a sailing ship into a book.

But why was it called a logbook? Because of this apparatus here, variously called a chip log, ship log, or log:

Chip log log line, & reel, CC Kate’s Photo Diary

A log! Or at least, a piece of heavy wood, attached to a knotted rope. Which you throw overboard and time how many knots go by for a set period of time, or, as Wikipedia describes it:

When the navigator wished to determine the speed of his vessel, a sailor dropped the log over the stern of the ship. The log would act as a drogue and remain roughly in place while the vessel moved away. The log-line was allowed to run out for a fixed period of time. The speed of the ship was indicated by the length of log-line passing over the stern during that time.

This is also why we still measure nautical speed in knots. So, when you next log in to Facebook or Gmail, think about big hunks of wood being thrown off the side of a ship to measure speed.

P.S. This was fun and entertaining for me to put together, but I’m sure there are holes and inaccuracies. If you know more about the origins of “log in”, please chime in with comments, and I’ll update accordingly!

Update 8/6/11: In a comment, Andrew Durdin points to some non-computer uses of “log in” from the 1950s. Awesome!

Note 1:  A couple of years ago I did a survey of top websites in the US and UK and whether they used “sign in”, “log in”, “login”, “log on”, or some other variant. The answer at the time seemed to be that if you combined “log in” and “login”, it exceeded “sign in”, but not by much. I’ve also noticed that the trend toward “sign in” is increasing, especially with the most popular services. Facebook seems to be a “log in” hold-out. Login_survey

If the whole “sign in” vs. log in” debate is interesting to you, there are some debates here and here. My personal feeling is that either is fine, but “sign in” is marginally more friendly and probably the preferred usage, though I’ll miss the nautical association. On the other hand, I feel strongly that “login” as a verb is an abomination and not to be tolerated under any circumstances.

If you’re really interested, you might start noticing where sites show their own evolutions and inconsistencies of usage. For example, Twitter’s web UI uses “sign in” but the URL says “login”. But now we’re probably reaching the outer limits of obsession and should stop.

Note 2. Here’s a PDF of a CTSS manual from 1964. There’s an underlined “log in” on page 6.
Interestingly, CTSS is also the system that gave us the first email system, as described by Errol Morris in his history of his brother’s role in the creation of that system. The Wikipedia history of CTSS is pretty fascinating stuff as well, and contains links to oral histories of the creation of CTSS and Multics (the precursor to Unix).




Bits and pieces from Empire of Liberty

I just finished Charles S. Wood's Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. It's an awesome book, and since I don't think any American history from this period stuck in my head from school more than "blah blah XYZ affair blah blah Hamilton Burr duel blah War of 1812" I really needed to read it.

Three unrelated quotes struck me enough to preserve. The first is Madison's description of Jefferson, which I think could apply to half the genius geeks I know. (Or me, excepting the genius part.)

Madison knew his friend and knew that Jefferson's fanciful and exaggerated opinions were usually offset by his own very practical and cautious behavior. As Madison later remarked, Jefferson had a habit like "others of great genius of expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment." Indeed, it was often the difference between Jefferson's impulsive opinions and his calculated behavior that led many critics to charge him with hypocrisy and inconsistency. (p. 150)

Expressing in strong and round terms, impressions of the moment. Awesome. I love that.

The next bit starts by relating the fad of calling things "mammoth" and ties it in to a subject that will be slightly familiar to West Wing fans, the Big Block of Cheese. (I say slightly familiar because this story relates to the Jefferson cheese, and the West Wing episode to the follow-up Andrew Jackson cheese.)

The most exciting scientific find of the period was Charles Wilson Peale's exhumation in 1801 near Newburgh, New York, of the bones of a mastadon, or mammoth. Peale displayed his mammoth inhis celebrated museum and in 1806 painted a marvelous picture of what was perhaps the first organized scientific exhumation in American history. Peale's discovery electrified the country and put the word "mammoth" on everybody's lips. A Philadelphia baker advertised the sale of "mammoth bread." In Washington a "mammoth eater" ate forty-two eggs in ten minutes.  And under the leadership of the Baptist preacher John Leland, the ladies of Cheshire, Massachusetts, late in 1801 sent to President Jefferson a "mammoth cheese," six foot in diameter and nearly two feet thick and weighing 1,230 pounds. The cheese was produced from the milk of nine hundred cows at a single milking, with no Federalist cows being allowed to participate. The president welcomed this gift from the heart of Federalism as "an ebullition of the passion of republicanism in a state where it has been under heavy persecution" (p. 393)

I do not know how the cows were checked for Federalism. Perhaps their stalls were checked for copies of the New York Post. (Did you know the New York Post was founded by Alexander Hamilton?)

I can also recommend A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar to folks with kids who'd like to learn more about this important cheese incident in our nation's history. It's a great book with awesome illustrations, and totally answers any practical questions you might have re: how you make a cheese that size and transport it.

Finally, a bit that tells us American politicians weren't always enemies of science:

When am American captain seized a British ship with some thirty volumes of medical lecture notes, Washington sent them back to England, saying the United States did not make war on science. (p. 544)

The end of November and fading technology

It's the last day of November, 2010. I realized today while talking to a coworker over lunch that I couldn't remember the last time I used an analog phone on my end. And it was only with a bit of thinking I could say that probably when I called my grandmother (one day late for her birthday, but in time for Thanksgiving) she answered on an analog phone. Unless her retirement community switched to VoIP, which they might have.

Last weekend I was sorting out cables in my office. The (internal, PCI, unknown baud) modem went in the trash. Just typing the words "PCI" and "baud" feels ancient to me. Some of this is personal, rather than technological: poking around inside of computers is something I did for fun and for pay in the late 20th century.

Typing the words "late 20th century" feels ancient to me.

I remember reading in the 90s, with some excitement, about Bruce Sterling's Dead Media project. At the time, I knew him as a science-fiction writer. The idea that media I was then using could die in my lifetime was compelling. It made sense to me.

I think it's routine now. I am not saying anything new (and I think I'm writing here mostly about old) but really just marking this moment, the end of the month of November in the year 2010. One of those future-sounding years we hit every year now. Marking it as a moment in the passing of the old, as is appropriate for Fall.

I probably chucked a half-dozen dead or dying technologies just sorting cables. Kept a few as well, because I'm bad at throwing things out. The miniature cassette recorder stayed. The CueCat stayed. I kept that thing (acquired from a Wired subscription, natch) with the intention of using it for something cool like scanning my book collection. I held onto it past when folks had written software to do just that for an individual, past when social book collection sites appeared, past the point where I wouldn't be able to use it with my computer without an adapter, and right up to the now, when I own a pocket-sized device which, when combined with an app (which is now owned by a company that was young when the CueCat appeared and which I worked for for a time) does that which I thought I might be able to get the CueCat to do as a narrow subset of its function.

(That sentence got a little tangled. History is tangled.)

I have one device which plays full-sized music cassette tapes in the house. It's  not a tape player, it's a hacky thing which fits into a PC drive bay (again, this sounds like I'm talking about vacuum tube diodes) so you can theoretically record your old mixtapes to MP3s. That's just one of a large number of possible old media projects taking up space in our house right now.

My children will probably never ask a stranger for spare change so they can call me from a payphone to ask if I can pick them up. Unless they're in a play, I guess.

This is normal. This is always happening. This may be happening at an accelerated rate, but that might also be an artifact of our inevitable Presentism.

In a few weeks I'm going to dress up in deliberately archaic clothing and walk through a pretend London. A few weeks ago, I dressed up in deliberately archaic clothing and danced at a club night that plays only music from a single decade but has been running for almost two. When I was a kid and visited London, it seemed to be a magical place where all the youth cultures of previous decades (at least the ones I cared about) kept on, incarnated in actual people.

I don't know if it's age, or the times, or the Internet, or whatever, but more places than London seem like that to me now.

On taking your hobbies seriously

At a ball in New Orleans in 1802, the ex-governor Vidal's son insisted on dancing "English contredances," which were easier, or perhaps simply more to his taste, than the French ones. When the young Vidal pushed his privilege too far, and angry shouting match ensued between his entourage and the French:

—Contredanse anglaise!
—Contredanse française!

The military guard, supporting Vidal, unsheathed their bayonets, rifles, and sabres and were at the point of opening fire on the dancers, who were armed with épées and ballroom furniture. The Americans, says an 1803 account of the incident, remained neutral, and, while the French and Spanish men were confronting each other, they took advantage of the situation to slip away with the women. Ultimately the situation was defused, and the French contredanse won the night.

The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, Ned Sublette

That's one of the lighter moments in what is for the most part a very grim history of one of my favorite cities. Katrina happened just after the author finished research for the book; he wrote another, The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans, that talks about his experiences there.