History

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Map showing correlation between US cotton production in 1860 and votes for Barack Obama in 2008

Much has been said of the supposed racial element in the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States. This map shows how deep the historical roots run.

The base area map shows in blue the counties which recorded a majority of votes for Obama. The overlay dot map shows US cotton production from 1860 — each dot represents 2000 bales. The similarity of the distribution is uncanny a century and half later.

It’s worth reading the comments on the original post at Strange Maps as people attempt to explain the finer details.

Photograph of Bombay Sapphire Gin bottle

“Television, the drug of the nation / Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation,” rapped American poet and musician Michael Franti of the Disposable Heroes of Hipocrisy Hiphoprisy”, now of Spearhead. Could this literally be true?

I’ve just read the most amazing speech, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus by Clay Shirky, which you can also watch on Blip.tv. It begins:

A British historian [argued] that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin.

The transformation from rural to urban life was so sudden, and so wrenching, that the only thing society could do to manage was to drink itself into a stupor for a generation. The stories from that era are amazing — there were gin pushcarts working their way through the streets of London.

And it wasn’t until society woke up from that collective bender that we actually started to get the institutional structures that we associate with the industrial revolution today. Things like public libraries and museums, increasingly broad education for children, elected leaders — a lot of things we like — didn’t happen until having all of those people together stopped seeming like a crisis and started seeming like an asset.

Shirky goes on to argue that when WWII ended, we suddenly had to cope with another social surplus: all that leisure time thanks to a 5-day working week and all those new-fangled gadgets which made household chores a breeze. So what did we do? We slothed in front of the TV. For a generation.

As we turn off our TVs and connect to each other, this cognitive surplus is creating things like Wikipedia. An estimated 100 million hours of work has gone into it. Yet this is but a drop in the ocean…

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Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, one of the most appalling episodes of the US Army’s involvement in the Vietnam war. You might also want to read the Wikipedia article.

17 March 2008 by Stilgherrian | No comments

Here’s how “Telecom Australia” (now Telstra) in 1992 envisioned the broadband revolution of far-future 1996. Have you watched this, Senator Conroy? Why doesn’t my laptop make those noises?

14 March 2008 by Stilgherrian | No comments

On this day in 1946, Winston Churchill delivered his famous Iron Curtain speech. Hat-tip to Memex 1.1.

06 March 2008 by Stilgherrian | No comments

Who’d have thought? An obituary for Heath Ledger in Middle English! Well, for a character he played. Doffing the hat to Quatrefoil, who writes, “Whoever writes this blog is frequently side-splittingly funny, but he or she can write (and knows their Middle English passing well). I am filled with wonder and envy.”

29 February 2008 by Stilgherrian | 4 comments

Brad Kellett has started a website documenting Obsolete Skills. Things like “interpolating logarithms” and “carving a nib into a quill”. The list currently over-emphasises the interests of urban computer geeks, who seem to forget that 96% of the planet does not live in a high-tech apartment, but there are still gems to be found. “Caulking your wagon to ford the river,” anyone?

22 February 2008 by Stilgherrian | No comments

If History is the set of stories we tell ourselves to explain the Past, then I guess Society comprises the stories we tell ourselves about the Present — plus the conversations which create our Future. I suspect that’s why certain people seem to be excited by the Australia 2020 Summit: Australia does seem to be starting a new conversation about its own identity.

The other day I quoted an historian who said that the Prussian enlightenment [of the 18th century] was about conversation. “It was about a critical, respectful, open-ended dialogue between free and autonomous subjects,” he said. So I’ll be so bold as to suggest this new conversation will lead to the Australian Enlightenment.

Yesterday I read two pieces which reinforce this idea of a new conversation. The first was Maxine McKew’s First Speech to federal parliament as the Member for Bennelong.

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Cover of Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark

“Dare to Know!” is the title of chapter 8 of Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947. And the opening words will bring a wriggle of delight to social media evangelists everywhere. (Hi, Laurel!)

The Prussian enlightenment [of the 18th century] was about conversation. It was about a critical, respectful, open-ended dialogue between free and autonomous subjects. Conversation was important because it permitted the sharpening and refinement of judgement. In a famous essay on the nature of enlightenment, the Königsberg philosopher Immanuel Kant declared that:

Enlightenment refers to man’s departure from his self-imposed tutelage. Tutelage means the inability to make use of one’s own reason without the guidance of another. This tutelage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in an intellectual insufficiency, but in a lack of will and courage… Dare to know! [Semper aude!] Have the courage to use your own reason! This is the motto of the Enlightenment!

[...] In the percolation through society of this spirit of critical, confident independence, conversation played an indispensable role. It flourished in the clubs and societies that proliferated in the Prussian lands…

The conversation… also took place in print. One of the distinctive features of the periodical literature of this era was its discursive, dialogical character. Many of the articles printed in the Berlin Monthly (Berlinische Monatsschrift), for example, were in fact letters to the editor from members of the public… The Berlin Monthly was thus above all a forum in print that… was not conceived as fodder for an essentially passive constituency of cultural consumers. It aimed to provide the public with the means of reflecting upon itself and its foremost preoccupations.

In other words, the strength and integrity of the Prussian state came not from the King or the bureaucrats telling everyone how things worked, but from people engaging in an on-going conversation about their own society.

In the age of “emerging social media”, this sounds very familiar…

Photograph of Olivetti M24 personal computer from 1984

I just stumbled across a great article from the November 1984 edition of Creative Computing magazine where Tim Hartnell claims “those who market personal computers have been conning us for years.”

There are two main approaches they use. The first one runs like this: “Buy a computer or your child will be hopelessly left behind at school and will be handicapped for life.” I reject these claims absolutely because (a) they attempt to arouse parental guilt and feelings of inadequacy; and (b) because they are just plain lies. This direction can hardly, to my mind, be one in which the answer to “what do you need a personal computer for?” can be found.

The second main way to sell personal computers seems to be the “use the computer as a Gee Whiz Aid around the house.” Balance your checkbook on it, store recipes on it, catalog your books.

It’s a hoot.

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