Category: Language

A screenshot of a 1924 New York Times article on the "4,000 most important words"

A 1924 New York Times story on “The 4,000 Most Essential Words” a foreigner must know to become a US citizen. (It’s on page 140. From the ms: “Milliner, million, mind”.) Why do we have pom-pom balls on our winter hats? A slightly different Fire and Fury becomes a bestseller. The current use of “Clive” in English-language books, according to Google’s ngram, is slightly below the historical mean. An analysis finds that Haskell is disproportionately a language coders learn for fun on the weekend. “Blattidae”, “chandala”, “chrestomathy”: H.L. Mencken had an epically wide-ranging vocabulary. Ophthalmologists who were trained in art observation became better at their jobs.


A picture of "The Asthma Quilt"

“The Asthma Quilt”, which uses scraps of industrial fabric to map out the incidence of asthma in NYC (via @auremoser). A programming language designed to function, and be read, like a comic strip. It seems the question “what is consciousness?” has become a hot subject in the field of consumer-psychology research. Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, updated for the humblebragging world of I’m sooo busy with work: “Conspicuous Consumption of Time”. The art-game Humanity: Think Lemmings, except with hundreds of thousands of faceless humans; and beatings; and guns. “Antipodal words” perform a semantic U-turn, and contain their opposite. Teaching robots not just to see, but to predict what they’re about to see.


"La Liberté Triomphante", a 1792 illustration from the French revolution, showing Liberty brandishing a thunderbolt in one hand and a Phrygian cap on a stick in the other

Why the French revolution adopted the lightning bolt as the symbol for “the will of the people”. How to tell if you’re a jerk. “Scurryfunge,” “mogshade”, “popple”, and 363 other English words that we have sadly stopped using. Science has determined you can drink as much damn coffee as you like. The use of “meritocracy” soared from its invention in 1958 until today, except for a big dip in the 80s. Meet the New York Times“super commenters”. Why China is building the world’s hugest dish to look for extraterrestrial life. The last people in the US still using iron lungs. A Javascript punch-card emulator. Tearing a book apart and reassembling it, letter by letter: A gorgeous art project!


Illustration of "Amon", a demon from the 1844 Dictionnaire Infernal

Behold “Amon”, a demon from the lavishly-illustrated 1863 Dictionnaire Infernal, a catalogue of demons; here’s a great story about this wild book. A new waterproof Kindle. Homage to the SpaceOrb 360, the weirdest game controller ever. Wait, the Canadian navy invented the trackball? “Your job now has in-app purchases!” Online dating rose in the 90s, precisely the same time as rates of interracial marriage in the US also began to rise; they’re related, this study posits. A lovely and haunting short film about a doomed Mars mission. “Gluggaveður” is an Icelandic word for “window-weather”: Weather that looks appealing from inside, but proves less pleasant in reality (via @RobGMacfarlane) A fascinating study tracked the IRL interactions of men and women at work, and finds that they’re treated differently. Oysters, which have no ears, can hear thunderstorms.


Screenshot of "Ten Bullets", an online browser game. “10 Bullets”, an addictively simple one-button browser game. First-person stories from religious protestors in Charlottesville. How the Internet has changed the work of being a private detective. Blockchain considered as foundational technology, like TCP/IP. (The analogy: TCP/IP -> blockchain as Early email -> bitcoin.) Typely, an online-proofreading tool, is very good at catching my consistent overuse of clichés in first drafts. (Man, if I had a nickel for every time I used a cliché!) What is technology? “How My Instagram Hacker Changed My Life.” Here’s some nifty browser-fu for sorting Chrome tabs. “Fuck”: That’s the title of this academic paper, on the legal implications of the word. So, Amazon’s new “2 minute” delivery system is basically just … an Automat?Turn old ASCII art into nicely-formatted HTML with Retrotext. Dataviz infoporn of Chicago’s tree canopy.


After encountering this wonderful factoid, my twitter followers began offering some other fun translations for “computer”: In Chinese it’s “electric brain”, in Spanish it translates as “sorter”, and another way to render the Icelandic version? “Prophetess of numbers.” Oh, and consider “ikiaqqivik”, the Inuit word for “Internet”, which translates as “traveling through layers.” In other linkstuff: A supernova so huge it takes out a nearby giant star. Using smilies at work “may decrease perceptions of competence”. “Icebox” is a Chrome extension that fights impulse-purchasing by replacing the “buy” button on e-commerce sites, and imposing a purchase delay. A paper computer from 1958.


Map showing a nuclear strike on NYC and how much damage it would cause

“Nukemap”: Pick the yield of the bomb, the target … then behold the death and destruction it’ll cause. “Should I beome a radiologist, or will AI take over that job?” A fascinating thread emerges after AI expert Andrew Ng posts this and asks for responses. Duolingo is now offering courses in the language High Valyrian from Game of Thrones. “Bleedwood”, “Clay Cow”, “Barkying White”: AI is still pretty bad at naming paint colors. “Umbrella-sharing startup loses nearly all of its 300,000 umbrellas in a matter of weeks.” Man, making robots is hard. Behold JANUS, a protocol for communicating with and between undersea drones, using acoustically-transmitted data. Meet the humans making (teensy) money to help train self-driving car AI. The most popular words Americans are looking up at Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary? “Collusion, treason, collude, quid pro quo, kakistocracy.”


Device on old car for catching jaywalkers
A device for old cars that tried to prevent jaywalking deaths by gently catching jaywalkers. How the CIA tracks the location of your phone. I loathe the phrase “thought leader”; here’s a book critiquing the entire trend and concept. A fun way to thwart face detection: Download and print up one of these masks based on the faces of 130 executives of major biometrics firms. An augmented-reality measuring tape. A new algorithm that will figure out how to fold any shape in origami. “I before E, except after C” is proven, by the data, to be wrong.


Which politicians still talk about the “information superhighway”?

Erik Paulsen and Louise Slaughter

Who still uses the term “information superhighway”?

It’s the most 90s coinage ever. It was an attempt by boomer journalists — whose chief technology of teen liberation was the automobile, but who by the 90s were solidly middle-aged — to find a metaphor for digital networks that made sense to them. Hey guys! Let’s all get in our, uh, cybervehicles! We can roll down the windows and go cruisin’ on the Highway of Information.

As “the Internet” and “the web” took off, though, eventually people stopped using the “information superhighway”.

Or did they? In The Atlantic, Adrienne LaFrance analyzed Donald Trump’s fascinatingly incoherent use of “the cyber”, and along the way she noted one cohort that seems to constantly use dated digital slang: Politicians.

So it made me wonder — who’s the last politician to have uttered the phrase “information superhighway” in the Congressional Record?

Step forward, Erik Paulsen.

A reverse-chron search of the Congressional Record finds that Paulsen used the phrase on July 17, 2014, speaking in support of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act.

A snippet of the Congressional Record, with Erik Paulsen speaking in praise of the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act

To give Paulsen credit, it seems like he might be using the phrase specifically because of its historic echo of the 90s: “… grown the information superhighway to what it is today.”

Trivia: “Information superhighway” has been uttered 291 times in the Congressional Record. Interestingly, other recent-ish uses seem to be when politicians are talking about net neutrality — possibly because there, the highway metaphor is useful; it evokes tolls, fast lanes vs. slow lanes, etc. So maybe the phrase has got some life in it yet.

Me, I’m a fan! “Information superhighway” is much more metal than “the Internet” or “the web”, which are functional but now rather lifeless. Given my druthers, I actually prefer the full, florid coinage of “the global information superhighway”. I have been waging a dogged campaign on Twitter to revive it; I am failing.

(That photo above is from the Creative-Commons-licensed Flickr feed of Rep. Louise Slaughter.)