Why do we long for a time when the average life span was 22 and everyone was wracked by tuberculosis?
This was the problem I had with Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (and to a lesser extent with Rutger Bregman’s Humankind):
Paleolithic peoples, so the tale goes, spent most of Tuesday strolling under Baobab trees, running their hands through the long elephant grass, and breathing in the sweet dust of the open Savannah. On Wednesdays they carefully chipped away the edges of Levallois blades, swept dust out of the home cave, and snacked on freshly gathered almonds. On Thursdays they gathered into small bands – a hand-picked selection of the finest endurance runners this side of Nairobi – tracked down an elephant, and sprinted after it barefoot for nine hours until the creature – dehydrated, exhausted, and unable to sweat out the excess heat – crumpled into a violently sad face-plant in the hot, gritty sand. Our strapping, supple ancestors jogged to a halt beside it, barely out of breath, to carve up its flesh and bring home the elephant bacon. Later that evening they would break their 36 hour intermittent fast, retire to the lake, and engage in polyamorous affairs.
When we find remains of beavers, we assume they built beaver dams, even if we don’t immediately find remnants of such dams. The beaver dams are part of what biologists would call the animal’s extended phenotype, an unavoidable necessity of the ecological niche that the beaver occupies. When we find Homo sapiens skeletons, however, we instead imagine the people naked, feasting on berries, without shelter, and without social differentiation.
We may not live in the best of all possible worlds, but we have dodged some bullets:
In the annals of environmental history, humanity’s response to the ozone crisis stands out as a rare success story. During the 1970s and ‘80s, evidence started to mount that certain household chemicals used in refrigerators, air conditioners, and aerosol cans like hairspray were eating a giant hole in Earth’s ozone layer, which prevents harmful ultraviolet radiation from reaching the surface. Facing the terrifying prospect of a future without any atmospheric sunscreen at all, in the late 1980s nations came together to sign the Montreal Protocol, a global treaty to phase out so-called ozone-depleting substances like chlorofluorocarbons.
But if things hadn’t turned out that way—if the scientific evidence linking man-made chemicals to ozone depletion wasn’t strong enough, or if ozone deniers (yes, there were ozone deniers) successfully stymied the Montreal Protocol—the world might look very different.
An excellent thoughtful piece from Angela Saini (as always):
Popular opinion, “common sense” and the closely related priors of scientific enquiry have never been reliable guides when it comes to decoding human difference. After all, European biologists once thought it was obvious that colour-coded races were different species or breeds that had evolved separately on each continent. It was obvious to taxonomist Carl Linnaeus that monster-like and feral races of humans surely existed somewhere in the world. More recently, neuroscientists were happily insisting that women were innately less intelligent than men because they had smaller brains. A few neuroscientists still do.
History shows that many supposed “facts” about human nature were actually always cultural constructions. Race is one. Gender is another. Now, some researchers believe that sex—generally seen as determined by anatomy, including chromosomes, hormones and genitalia—may to some extent be constructed, too. Binary categories of male and female, they say, certainly don’t fully encompass all the natural variation and complexity that we see in our species.
An audio mix for every year of recorded sound, 1859 to the present.
Currently up to 1936.
A terrific piece by Jonathan Zittrain on bitrot and online digital preservation:
Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.
Wait a minute. There is no real difference between the dataome—our externalized world of books and computers and machines and robots and cloud servers—and us. That means the dataome is a genuine alternative living system here on the planet. It’s dependent on us, but we’re dependent on it too. And for me that was nerve-wracking. You get to the point of looking at it and going, Wow, the alien world is here, and it’s right under our nose, and we’re interacting with it constantly.
I like this Long Now view of our dataome:
We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today.
Eric looks back on 25 years of CSS and remarks on how our hacks and workarounds have fallen away over time, thank goodness.
But this isn’t just a message of nostalgia about how much harder things were back in my day. Eric also shows how CSS very nearly didn’t make it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Todd Fahrner and Tantek Çelik saved the day. If Tantek hadn’t implemented doctype switching, there’s no way that CSS would’ve been viable.
The ZX Spectrum in a time of revolution:
Gaming the Iron Curtain offers the first book-length social history of gaming and game design in 1980s Czechoslovakia, or anywhere in the Soviet bloc. It describes how Czechoslovak hobbyists imported their computers, built DIY peripherals, and discovered games as a medium, using them not only for entertainment but also as a means of self-expression.
Lou’s idea was just for a server to remember the last state of a browser’s interaction with it. But that one move—a server putting a cookie inside every visiting browser—crossed a privacy threshold: a personal boundary that should have been clear from the start but was not.
Once that boundary was crossed, and the number and variety of cookies increased, a snowball started rolling, and whatever chance we had to protect our privacy behind that boundary, was lost.
The Doctor is incensed.
At this stage of the Web’s moral devolution, it is nearly impossible to think outside the cookie-based fecosystem.
Lysenko vs. Vavilov feels like the 20th century version of Edison vs. Tesla.
This video is a charming trip down to memory lane to the early days of the public internet:
It wasn’t quite the World Wide Web yet, but everybody started hearing about this thing called “the Internet” in 1993. It was being called the Information Superhighway then.
The format of a Wikipedia page is used as the chilling delivery mechanism for this piece of speculative fiction. The distancing effect heightens the horror.
Here’s the video of the talk I gave at the Web Stories conference back in February.
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.
Black Mirror meets Henrietta Lacks in this short story by Erik Hoel who I had not heard of until today, when I came across his name here and also in a completely unrelated blog post by Peter Watts about the nature of dreams.