Rongorongo: The language at the end of the world

Jacob Mikanowski writing at Cabinet magazine:

Of all the literatures in the world, the smallest and most enigmatic belongs without question to the people of Easter Island. It is written in a script—rongorongo—that no one can decipher. Experts cannot even agree whether it is an alphabet, a syllabary, a mnemonic, or a rebus. Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts. The longest, consisting of a few thousand signs, winds its way around a magnificent ceremonial staff. The shortest texts—if they can even be called that—consist of barely more than a single sign. One took the form of a tattoo on a man’s back. Another was carved onto a human skull.

For more on old languages, see also The strange reinvention of Icelandic:

The result is something close to unique—a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one.

And Old and new Finnish grammar:

Surveying the structure of the language as a whole, I end up thinking of it as the concentric rings of a tree, each ring defined by clear patterns in groups of words and phrases, each belying a particular history. The core of the tree is an ancient Paleo-European language, perhaps 6000 BCE or more, followed by a ring of Finnic language from 1500-1000 BC. Then, moving outwards, a ring of Old Norse for a few hundred years either side of the 8th century, leading into the language of trade and nobility, under the Swedish empire, from around 13th century onwards. This administrative language develops further in the 16th century (Helsinki was established in 1550), before the Russian rule, and the language of municipalities, during the 19th century. Finally, the outer rings of the 20th century, and its language of Fordism, modernity and nationalism, becoming the 21st century language of postmodern globalisation.

Amazon multiplied its machine learning

This is interesting: How Amazon Rebuilt Itself Around Artificial Intelligence. There are lots of fascinating things but what grabbed me most was that Amazon had either the great foresight or plain old jammy luck to put in place ways to multiply the growth of their machine learning expertise.

For example, by being more open with employees’ freedom to publish research, and thus make visible the sorts of projects that they were undertaking, Amazon was better able to recruit talent that otherwise would have gone to Facebook, Google or stayed in academia. These better-qualified employees then published even more impressive work, piquing the interests of the very best in the field.

They also worked to hugely increase the amount of data available with which to train their AI. By opening up their platforms to third party developers and creating more consumer products that run on them, they could apply their machine learning techniques to a far larger dataset, leading to huge advances in understanding and capability at great speed.

To add to my ongoing Russian books theme, I’m reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We and it sure is a lot easier going after a glass or two of wine. 📚

A Japanese tsunami in 1700 was caused by an earthquake in North America

The orphan tsunami of 1700—Japanese clues to a parent earthquake in North America:

A puzzling tsunami entered Japanese history in January 1700. Samurai, merchants, and villagers wrote of minor flooding and damage. Some noted that no parent earthquake had been felt; they were wondering what had set off the waves. They had no way knowing that the tsunami had been spawned during an earthquake along the coast of northwestern North America. This orphan tsunami would not be linked to its parent earthquake until the middle 1990s, through an extraordinary series of discoveries in both North America and Japan.

The Orphan Tsunami of 1700, now in its second edition, tells this scientific detective story through its North American and Japanese clues. The discoveries underpin many of today’s precautions against earthquakes and tsunamis in the Cascadia region of northwestern North America. The Japanese tsunami of March 2011 called attention to those hazards as a mirror image of the transpacific waves of January 1700.

The 300-year history of using ‘literally’ figuratively

Kory Stamper:

The emphatic “literally” is not a millennial invention; it goes back to the 1700s at least, though Smith gets it right that it’s English. John Dryden, a man who is best known as the founder of literary criticism and the prohibition against the terminal preposition, was an early user of the emphatic “literally.” Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Vladimir Nabokov, and David Foster Wallace all used the emphatic “literally” in their works. Even Lindley Murray, 19th-century grammarian, uses the hyperbolic “literally” in his own grammar — and he was such a peever that he thought children, along with animals, shouldn’t be referred to with the pronoun “who,” as “who” conveys personhood, and only creatures with the ability to be rational are actually people.

Routes to the map room

My friend Patrick:

This is a nice idea for a book: a collection of ghost stories specially commissioned by English Heritage, each inspired by one of their properties. One could wonder why they approached these writers specifically rather than those who specialise in horror or weird fiction. But it makes for an eye-catching package, I think, though it never quite shakes that sense of being a slightly rushed exercise, as if it were the product of a jolly weekend seminar in a draughty manor, somewhere at the far end of a long driveway.

A mixed bag, it seems, but enough good stuff in there that I’m looking forward to reading this.

3 ways to get at your Kindle highlights

I’m reading more on my Kindle these days. This is for many reasons, not least of which is that it is difficult to manoeuvre both a hefty hardback and a ballooning baby at the same time. I can just about handle the Kindle instead.

I wasn’t always an inveterate note-taker—notably during my school days when it would have helped enormously—but I’m trying to get into the habit. Previously, when reading my Kindle, for too long I was passively highlighting passages of books I read, unlikely to come back to them, or if I did, unlikely to understand why I highlighted it or what that ? meant—disagreement? lack of understanding? a once-pertinent question for the author?

As it happens, Alan Jacobs wrote about this in the excellent The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

The more heavily you annotate a text—the more questions you ask and comments you venture—the more often you disrupt the continuity of reading.

Writing out the whole of your question is better than just flinging a question mark onto the page, because doing the former takes more time—it gets you out of the flow of mere passive reception—and because it forces you to articulate the precise nature of your vexation. A mere question mark could indicate confusion, disagreement, a feeling of lacking information—any one of a dozen things. When you write out your question you render the discomfort exactly.

So by reading actively—that is, highlighting and marking up and taking extra notes and asking questions—you disrupt the continuity of reading more often, the more thought goes into it, and the more likely you are to digest and remember what you have read. So I’m doing it more often.


Still, we can’t all remember everything, no matter how actively we read.

Here are 3 tools you can use to export and resurface your Kindle notes and highlights. They all work by accessing your kindle.amazon.com page. In increasing order of power and complexity:

1. Bookcision

The bookmarklet yields a single page of cleanly styled highlights, which can then be copied to one’s clipboard and pasted into a local text repository (OneNote, Evernote, DevonThink, etc.)

Chrome users will additionally be offered the ability to dowload the highlights in plain text, JSON, or XML formats.

2. Readwise

A browser extension that syncs your highlights and sends you a regular email resurfacing them. I use and like this a lot! (They’ve launched a web app version which they are currently pushing.)

3. Clippings.io

A Chrome extension that powers a more feature-rich version of something like Bookcision. Notes and highlights are synced to the ‘app’, where you can perform some additional organisation such as tagging. You can export individual or multiple highlights, adhering to different referencing styles.

There’s a tiny monthly charge, but I’m pleased about this—I’d always rather pay for things I find useful, as there’s then less chance they’ll disappear overnight.


I use Clippings.io to transfer my highlights and notes to my archiving/information storage app of choice and get an every-other-day email from Readwise. Using both services I have an easily searchable database of highlights, the ability to see contextual links between my highlights and other documents (a feature of DEVONthink), and get serendipitous reminders of them in my email inbox.

In fact, simply publishing some these highlights with some extra context, questions, elaboration etc would form the basis of an intriguing blog, if you don’t have one already…

Whenever I go into the kitchen to do something quick—let the dog out into the garden, make a cup of tea, empty the dishwasher—I open this book onto a random page and read for a few minutes. While not a recipe book per se, it’s by far my favourite book about food. 📚