Category: Reading

“Eureka,” a 19th century machine that generated a line of Latin poetry (26 million possible combinations!) and may have inspired Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. A one-handed cutting machine from Sweden; I had no idea such devious devices existed! Guy Sims Fitch was a prolific and published journalist in the 50s and 60s who did not, in fact exist; he was a propaganda invention of the US government. The “man-in-the-browser” attack uses browser-sync between mobile and desktop to defeat two-factor authentication. “I thought you might like it”: A study on the reasons why people SMS links to one another. And a truly gorgeous pair of custom dice made from machined aluminum.


How Ursula Franklin made me a technology journalist

Ursula Franklin

Ursula Franklin is a Canadian scientist, philosopher, feminist, and a thoroughly remarkable person. As Robinson Meyer described her over at the Atlantic web site …

The 92-year-old metallurgist pioneered the field of archeometry, the science of dating archaeologically discovered bronzes, metals, and ceramics. Her research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. She delivered the Massey Lectures—an important, annual series of talks delivered by Canadian public intellectuals—in 1989, and she was the first woman to be named University Professor at the University of Toronto, the university’s highest position.

She was also born in Munich in 1921, and was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.

As it turns out, Franklin also completely changed the arc of my writing career. She’s why I write the journalism that I do.

I recently talked about this with Suw Charman-Anderson on the debut episode of her new Ada Lovelace Day podcast! It’s here if you want to hear it — I’m on at the 25:00 point:

But if you prefer scannable text, here’s the short version of how Franklin changed my life:

I decided in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. Though I’d been a nerd child who tinkered with computers, I didn’t think I’d ever write about that stuff. A real journalist wrote about serious things … which meant, well, politics, right?

So I went to the University of Toronto and did a major in English with a minor in Political Science, the latter at which I was pretty dreadful. Which ought to have been some sort of warning sign, yes? But on I persisted. I learned journalism by getting deeply involved in the campus newspapers, writing and editing a bazillion stories, and training myself to be — my top aspiration at the time — a city hall reporter for the Toronto Star. (A job I never actually got, since my proffered resumes and clips were met with the sound of crickets.) But anyway, that was the goal: To write about politics — municipal, provincial, federal, international, what have you. I kept all the nerd stuff in check. Nobody, I thought, gave a toss about that stuff.

Then in August of 1990 I picked up a copy of Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology. It was a print-up of her “Massey Lectures,” an annual series broadcast by a notable Canadian thinker on the CBC.

In brief, the book pointed out how technology was increasingly affecting the warp and woof of everyday life. She lays it out crisply on her opening, comparing technology to a house in which we all live …

A page from Ursula Franklin's "The Real World of Technology"

As the book goes on, Franklin elegantly used then-contemporary examples to show how technology was tweaking the ways we related to each other — and particularly how digital tools were being used to centralize power. One lovely example is her discussion of credit-card-style keycards to unlock doors. Back around 1990 they were a hot new tech, but as Franklin pointed out, they weren’t just a “better” key. They were a different key, with new abilities. A regular metal key can let you in a room. But a credit-card key can gather information on how often you access that room, reporting back to the building-owner on your comings and goings. Or the owner can, on the fly, reprogram the lock from afar to suddenly lock you out. High-tech keys conferred new powers on those who owned the locks.

When you read the book today, it’s astonishing how forward-looking it is. That discussion of locks feel like she’s writing about Facebook or GPS chips in phones.

The point is, as a 22-year-old kid in 1990, I had never thought about technology in this way. I was completely ignorant of the tradition of philosophers who scrutinized the social, political and cultural effects of technology — from Harold Innis to Lewis Mumford to Jacques Ellul and many others, all of whom with Franklin herself was deeply familiar. But once she’d opened the door, I could see everything that lay within that room. I could see how my interest in politics and culture overlapped with my interest in computers.

And I decided, pretty much upon putting down the book, what I was going to do with the rest of my life: To report on technology’s impact on everyday life. How weird new tools were changing the way we talk to each other, learn new things, waste time, work, and play.

So that’s what I’ve done, for 25 years. It’s all due to Franklin.


“Genius hesitates”

I read Carlo Rovelli’s book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a layperson’s description of the big breakthroughs in modern physics. It’s a blast, but one throwaway comment really struck me.

Rovelli is discussing Einstein’s 1900 paper about photons and light. He quotes what Einstein wrote …

It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, flourescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space.

Then Rovelli makes a nifty point …

These simple and clear lines are the real birth certificate of quantum theory. Note the wonderful initial “It seems to me …,” which recalls the “I think … ” with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea of that species evolve, or the “hesistation” spoken of by Farraday when introducing to the first time the revolutionary idea of magnetic fields. Genius hesitates.

Genius hesitates. I love that! When we approach a truly enormous idea, of the sort that tilts the world on its axis, we’re not excited and arrogant and confident. We’re unsure; we hesitate. I’ve noticed this in the scientists I interview. The ones who are doing really groundbreaking work are tentative, cautious, almost unsettled by the implications of what they’re saying.

It’s not a bad litmus test for the people around us in everyday life. The ones who are proposing genuinely startling and creative ideas are liable to be … careful about it. It’s the ones with small ideas who are shouting them from the rooftops.

By the way, that notebook of Darwin that Rovelli mentions? It’s online, and here’s the page he talks about. You can see Darwin scribble “I THINK” at the top …
darwin's notebook
The full scan of the page from Rovelli’s book is below the jump if you want to see it …
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Where did “Ipsum Lorem” come from?

When you design a new web site, a design convention is to put in blocks of Latin text called Lorem Ipsum. This, the theory goes, lets you visually assess the aesthetics of the design without being distracted by the meaning of the text. I’ve always found this concept a little sort of, I dunno, aesthetically sociopathic — I mean, isn’t form supposed to follow function? But it got me interested in the origins of Lorem Ipsum.

Hello, Wikipedia! According to the hivemind over there …

A variation of the ordinary lorem ipsum text has been used in typesetting since the 1960s or earlier, when it was popularized by advertisements for Letraset transfer sheets. It was introduced to the Information Age in the mid-1980s by Aldus Corporation, which employed it in graphics and word processing templates for its desktop publishing program, PageMaker, for the Apple Macintosh.

Better yet is the what Lorem Ipsum means. It’s from a text by Cicero called “On the Ends of Goods and Evils”, and …

The original passage began: Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci velit (translation: “Neither is there anyone who loves, pursues or desires pain itself because it is pain”).

I hunted down this free online translation and found the passage in which this extract occurs. It’s pretty interesting; it’s all about the necessity of embracing pain. In it, he notes that there really is not anyone …

… who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? [snip] We denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of the pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. [snip] The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.

Cool, but how precisely did designers pick this text to use? Why Cicero? And why this Cicero text?

According to a speculation at the Pricenomics blog, the original folks at Letraset may have picked it simply because Cicero was/is an extremely popular writer … and if you were sitting around looking for a long chunk of non-English text to work with, the odds were good you’d reach over to your shelf and find a copy of Cicero. As they quote the Latin professor Richard McClintock saying …

At some point, likely in the middle ages, a typesetter had to make a type specimen book, to demo different fonts, and he got the idea that if the text should be insensible, so as not to distract from the page’s graphical features. So he took a handy page of non-Biblical Latin — Cicero — and scrambled it into mostly gibberish. “Lorem” isn’t even a Latin word — it’s the second half of “dolorem,” meaning “pain” or “sorrow”. Thus Lorem Ipsum was born, and began its long journey to ubiquity.

I must say I’m charmed by the image of thousands of art directors out there, today, working into the wee hours as they attempt to design their textbooks and web sites and pamphlets and corporate reports, all gazing down at a Latin text that encourages them to embrace necessary pain.