Tracing history with whale earwax

As whales go through their annual cycles of summer binge-eating and winter migrations, the wax in their ears changes from light to dark. These changes manifest as alternating bands, which you can see if you slice through the plugs. Much as with tree rings, you can count the bands to estimate a whale’s age. And you can also analyze them to measure the substances that were coursing through the whale’s body when each band was formed. A whale’s earwax, then, is a chronological chemical biography.

Stephen Trumble and Sascha Usenko from Baylor University have worked out how to read those biographies. And they’ve shown that whale earwax not only reveals the lives of their owners, but the history of the oceans. Hunting, abnormal temperatures, pollutants—it’s all there. If all of humanity’s archives were to disappear, Trumble and Usenko could still reconstruct a pretty decent record of whaling intensity by measuring the stress hormones in the earwax of a few dozen whales.

Source: The Astonishing History Locked in Whale Earwax – The Atlantic

When Homer envisioned Achilles, did he see a black man?

By and large, then, ancient Greeks probably looked generally like darker versions of modern Greeks (which, incidentally, sheds interesting light on Homer’s ‘black-skinned’ Odysseus and Eurybates). They were, of course, shorter too: the average height of the owners of surviving ancient Greek skeletons was around 5ft 4in (163 cm) for men and 5ft (153 cm) for women. Also, at the time that the Iliad and the Odyssey were written, there is likely to have been a greater variation at the individual level than at the time of the study, because of the extent of Greek reach across the Mediterranean and into north Africa, and the likelihood of immigration and intermarriage. In brief: the Greek warriors that Homer imagined probably did not look much like David Gyasi (Achilles in the BBC show), but nor did they look like Brad Pitt (Achilles in the Hollywood movie Troy).

Source: When Homer envisioned Achilles, did he see a black man? | Aeon Essays

W. E. B. Du Bois’ hand-drawn infographics of African-American life

William Edward Burghardt “W. E. B.” Du Bois — sociologist, historian, activist, Pan-Africanist, and prolific author — had also, it turns out, a mighty fine eye for graphic design. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois studied at Fisk University, Humboldt University in Berlin, and Harvard (where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate), and in 1897 he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University. Two years later he published his first major academic work The Philadelphia Negro (1899), a detailed and comprehensive sociological study of the African-American people of Philadelphia, based on his earlier field work. The following year, along with collaborators Thomas J. Calloway and Daniel Murray, Du Bois travelled to Europe, firstly to the First Pan-African Conference held in London, and then to the Paris Exposition to present a groundbreaking exhibition on the state of African-American life — “The Exhibit of American Negroes” — which, according to Du Bois, attempted to show “(a) The history of the American Negro. (b) His present condition. (c) His education. (d) His literature.”

Source: W. E. B. Du Bois’ Hand-Drawn Infographics of African-American Life (1900) – The Public Domain Review

WWI soldiers expressed emotion by not swearing

From Bee Wilson’s review of The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard:

The Littlehampton Libels by Christopher Hilliard is a short but dazzling work of microhistory. It uses the story of some poison pen letters in a small town to illuminate wider questions of social life in Britain between the wars, from ordinary people’s experience of the legal system to the way people washed their sheets, and is a far more exciting book than either the title or the rather dull cover would suggest. For a short period, the mystery of these letters became a national news story that generated four separate trials and, as Hilliard writes, ‘demanded more from the police and the lawyers than most murders’.

This is a book about morality and class, about the uses and abuses of literacy and about the tremendous dislocations in British society after the First World War, which extended far beyond those who had suffered the direct trauma of battle. Hilliard uses these poison pen letters – written in language that was as eccentric as it was obscene – to ‘catch the accents of the past’. The Littlehampton Libels is about a battle between two women who were members of only the second generation in Britain to benefit from compulsory elementary education, women for whom the written word was a new and exhilarating weapon.

Hilliard asks what it was like to live in a society where ‘nice’ women had to pretend that they were ignorant of all profanity. Melissa Mohr claims in her excellent book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (2013) that the British started to swear more during and after the First World War, because strong language – like strong drink – is a way to alleviate despair. In 1930, John Brophy and Eric Partridge published a collection of British songs and slang from the war. They claimed that soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning ‘that a noun is coming’. In a normal situation, swear words are used for emphasis, but Brophy and Partridge found that obscenity was so over-used among the military in the Great War that if a soldier wanted to express emotion he wouldn’t swear. ‘Thus if a sergeant said, “Get your —ing rifles!” it was understood as a matter of routine. But if he said, “Get your rifles!” there was an immediate implication of urgency and danger.’

 

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.

Elephas Anthropogenus

After the fall of the Roman Empire, elephants virtually disappeared from Western Europe.

Since there was no real knowledge of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions to morphologically reconstruct the elephant, thus reinventing an actual existing creature. This tree diagram traces the evolution of the elephant depiction throughout the middle ages up to the age of enlightenment.

Some of these are great, e.g. this from around 1400:

Goebbels’ ex-secretary: “it was just another job”

Kate Connolly interviews 105-y-o Brunhilde Pomsel, who displays a surprising lack of remorse about her involvement in the Nazi inner circle:

While she admits she was at the heart of the Nazi propaganda machine, with her tasks including massaging downwards statistics about fallen soldiers, as well as exaggerating the number of rapes of German women by the Red Army, she describes it, somewhat bizarrely, as “just another job”.

And:

There was really nothing to criticise about him.

A documentary about her life was recently released.

Migrants are too wealthy

1: Spotify is getting unbelievably good at picking music — here’s an inside look at how

There’s a playlist on Spotify I love called Discover Weekly. It’s updated every Monday with a mix of songs, some I know and some I’ve never heard, crossing into almost every genre with no discernible pattern. Like magic, it just knows what I want to hear.

It’s one of the reasons why I’m listening to Spotify more than ever. And I’m not alone.

I’m pleased with Spotify’s Discover playlist. Mine this week is 30 songs (2hr 1m) and is a nice mix of bands I’ve never heard of, back-catalogue songs by bands I know, and a handful of songs I own and/or I’ve listened to (on Spotify) multiple times. I think this last tactic is deliberate; relatively few people will want two hours of music that they’re completely new to, and will appreciate a bit of familiarity along the way. I’d like more new (to me) music, but I’m a bit odd: maybe ‘Discover’ could be an integral part of the Spotify app, along with ‘Browse’ and ‘Radio’ and the like, that we could tinker with using filters and settings depending on what we want to expose ourselves to.

I still like Apple Music, by the way, and I’ll likely carry on paying for it and using the free version of Spotify, which I downgraded to a couple of months ago. But the excitement of the ‘For You’ section in Apple Music has worn off. There’s only so many times I want to see ‘An Introduction To’ an act whose back catalogue I own in its entirety, nor ‘Deep Cuts’.

2: Social decay: How Tweets can predict the death of an app

We used Twitter data to analyze the health of social apps and find out which ones might be in trouble — or, as we call it, in social decay.

Interesting to see the slow decline of This Is My Jam, and how Ello has peaked, dropped and plateaued.

3: How to write a great error message

Your job as product manager, designer or developer of an app is to recognize that writing copy in your app is not something that you can just do on the side. It’s just as important as having the application work correctly and the user interface being easy and efficient to use.

4: Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you’re an idiot

On the surface this may look like xenophobia searching for something to grab on to following a shift in the public mood towards refugees from the Middle East. But it is actually a fairly progressive stance: just weeks ago the anti-immigration brigade were complaining that migrants are unskilled and just want our benefits. And now they’re arguing that migrants are too wealthy instead, implicitly arguing we should prioritise helping the poor. But in any case, it does raise an interesting question: Exactly how surprised should we be that people from Syria carry smartphones?

5: How media ‘fluff’ helped Hitler rise to power

In the years preceding World War II, news outlets from home magazines to the New York Times ran profiles of the Nazi leader that portrayed him as a country gentleman — a man who ate vegetarian, played catch with his dogs and took post-meal strolls outside his mountain estate […] The 1930s marked the rise of celebrity culture, in the era of talking movies, radio and new lifestyle magazines […] Hitler’s propagandists took advantage of the new celebrity culture and even helped to shape it.

6: Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto explaining World 1-1 is the best game design lesson of the week

Miyamoto talks level design.

They pay in faeces

1: A/B tests are destroying your conversion rate

Have I heard clients tell me that they incur performance slowdowns due to their use of A/B tests? Absolutely. But when I hear that, I don’t hear “A/B tests are the problem.” I hear “maybe you need to put in a bit more work until you get it right.”

2: Ultimate steak sandwich: rib-eye, Boursin & watercress

This really does look excellent.

3: The 33 best 33 1/3 books

The 33 1/3 series has revealed a way that we can save the album: by dislocating it from history and letting a new generation develop their own canon. Recently announced titles suggest this trend will continue, but while we wait for new editions on Beat Happening, the Raincoats, and the Geto Boys, here are the 33 best 33 1/3 titles in alphabetical order by artist.

4: Incubus on Instagram

The mostly-forgotten band Incubus are doing something extremely interesting with their Instagram feed. (This looks much better in the app as there is less padding between posts.)

5: A brief note to readers new to Infinite Jest (and a very incomplete list of motifs in the novel)

Yes, I am still re-reading this goddamn novel.

6: When you give a tree an email address

This is wonderful:

The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.

7: leejohnphillips on Instagram

Spending the next 4 years of my life drawing every item in my late grandfather’s tool shed.

8: lightyear.fm

Radio broadcasts leave Earth at the speed of light. Scroll away from Earth and hear how far the biggest hits of the past have travelled. The farther away you get, the longer the waves take to travel there—and the older the music you’ll hear.

9: My burger manifesto

10: One-minute time machine

A great short film.

11: God tier: Facebook moms run the meme game

The advice meme as we knew it (original characters captioned in Impact) is dead. But while the internet cultural vanguard moved on, a newer class of internet user, the well-connected mainstreamer, reinvented it. We live in the age of the post-meme.

12: This plant is a hotel for bats, and they pay in faeces.

13: Archeologists have found 2,000 ancient golden spirals and they have no idea what they are

I was also surprised to find out that I live about 1 mile away from one of the biggest concentrations of Bronze Age gold known from Great Britain, valued at £290,000.

14: Species in pieces

30 species. 30 pieces. 1 fragmented survival. A CSS-based interactive exhibition celebrating evolutionary distinction.