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Utopian Hacks | Limn

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Issue Number Eight: Hacks, Leaks, and Breaches

Not all engineers create equally. Götz Bachmann takes us inside the labs of “radical engineers” and the starkly different futures they imagine for us.

In a lab in Oakland a group of elite, yet heterodox engineers are trying to re-imagine what computers can and should ‘do.’ It is here, in this lab in Silicon Valley (or in close proximity to Silicon Valley, depending where you draw its boundaries), that I base my ongoing ethnography. The group, clustered around an engineer named Bret Victor, is part of YC Research’s Human Advancement Research Community (HARC), an industry-financed research lab devoted to open and foundational research. “Hacking” is for the members of this group, just as it is for many other engineers, at best a word for tentative work (as in: “This is just a hack”) or for using technologies for other purposes than those originally intended for them.  It can also be a derogatory term for not thinking through the consequences of the accumulation of amateurish, low-quality tech development. Thus: when the engineers I research describe their work, “hacking” would not be one of the key terms they would choose. However, I want to make the case that some of their work practices share similarities with hacking, albeit in a different realm. This article asks: How do engineers hack imaginaries of what technologies are and can be?

I argue this claim by analyzing these engineers as part of a tradition which I call, for lack of a better term, “radical engineering.” Radical engineers fundamentally challenge existing notions of (here, digital media) technologies: their basic features, purposes, and possible futures. Their radicality is not to be confused with political radicality, or the radicality of “disruption”, or the radicality of some of engineering’s outcomes. Theirs is a radicality that puts them outside of assumptions in the wider engineering field of what is obvious, self-evident, time-tested or desirable. Their positions are so heterodox that they often stop calling themselves “engineers.” But no other word can take its place. They might experiment with words like “artist” or “designer in the Horst Rittel way,” but neither stabilizes and both are prone to cause misunderstanding. After all, the people at stake here have their education in disciplines like electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science or mathematics, and their work often comes with the need to tackle highly complex technical problems.

Bret Victor’s group tries to build a new medium. To get there is less a question of a sudden eureka, but more a permanent and stubborn process of pushing beyond what is thinkable now. The lab takes existing technologies such as projectors, cameras, lasers, whiteboards, computers, and Go stones, and recombines them with new or historic ideas about programming paradigms, system design and information design, as well as a range of assumptions and visions about cognition, communication, sociality, politics and media. The group is constructing a series of operating systems for a spatial dynamic medium, each building on the experiences of building the last one, and each taking roughly two years to build. The current OS is named “Realtalk” and its predecessor was called “Hypercard in the World” (both names pay respect to historical, heterodox programming environments: Smalltalk in the 1970s and Hypercard in the 1980s). While the group develops such operating systems, it engages in a process of writing and rewriting code, as well as manifestos, lots of talking, even more moments of collective silence, of iterating and tweaking mantras, of digesting films and books ,as well as huge amounts of technical papers, and building dozens—indeed hundreds—of hardware and software prototypes.

The lab is filled with prototypes, and new ones are added by the week. In one month, a visitor is able to point a laser at a book in the library, and a projector beams the inside of that book on the wall next to her. A few weeks later you will see people jumping around on the floor, playing “laser socks”: a game where people try to laser each other’s white socks. Months later, a desk becomes a pinball machine made out of light from a projector, and cat videos follow around every rectangle drawn on a piece of paper. Currently, the group experiments with “little languages” in the spatial medium: domain specific programming languages based on paper, pen and scissors, Go stones, or wires, all equipped with dynamic properties, thus having capabilities to directly steer computation or visualize complexity. The point of all such prototypes is not technical sophistication of the glitzy kind. In fact, it is the opposite. The prototypes aim for simplicity and reduction—as a rule of thumb, you can assume that the fewer lines of code involved, and the simpler these lines are, the more the prototype is deemed successful.

Illustration (draft) by David Hellman, imagining jointly with Bret Victor’s group “Dynamic Land”, dynamic spatial media’s next iteration in 2017.

In all their playfulness, these prototypes remain “working artefacts” (Suchman et al 2002, 175), forming “traps” for potentialities with “illusions of self-movement” (Jiménez 2014, 391). In the research group of Bret Victor, the work of prototypes is to catch and demonstrate potential properties of a new, spatial, dynamic medium. As one of its desired properties is simplicity, those prototypes that show this property tend to be selected as successful. Every two years or so, the overall process results in a new operating system, which then allows a whole new generation of prototypes to be built, prototypes that are often (though not always) based on the abilities of the respective present operating system while at the same time already exploring potential capabilities of its next generation. The overall goal is to create a rupture of a fundamental kind, a jump in technology equivalent to the jump in the 1960s and early 1970s when the quadruple introduction of the microprocessor, the personal computer, the graphical user interface, and the internet revolutionized what computing could be by turning the computer into a medium. Turning computing into media was already in the 1960s and 1970s meant to work with technology against technology: by using new computational capabilities, a medium was carved out that complies less with perceptions at the time of what computing “is,” and more with what a medium that forms a dynamic version of paper could look like. This form of working with computing against computing is now radicalized in the work of Bret Victor’s research group.

The patron saint for this enterprise, both in spirit and as a real person, is Alan Kay, one of the most famous radical engineers and a key contributor to those ruptures in computing in the 1960s and 1970s that Bret Victor’s group tries to match today. So let’s zoom in on Kay. He started his work in the 1960s at the newly founded Computer Science Department at the University of Utah, writing what surely was one of the boldest doctoral dissertations ever written, a wild technological dream of a new form of computing. A reference to another radical engineer’s cry of despair—“I wish these calculations were executed by steam” (attributed to Charles Babbage and quoted in Kay 1969, III)—stands at its beginning, and after 250 pages of thinking through a “reactive engine,” it culminates in a “handbook” for an imaginary “Flex Machine”: a first iteration of a set of ideas that culminated a few years later in Kay’s vision for a “DynaBook” (1972). While still working on this thesis, Kay became one of the Young Turks in the research community funded by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Project Agency’s (ARPA) Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO), which was at that time making its first steps towards building the ARPANET. In the early 1970s, after a quick stint as a postdoc with John McCarthy at Stanford, Kay joined Bob Taylor’s new Xerox PARC research lab, where engineering legends such as Lampson, Thacker, Metcalfe, and many others, were building the ALTO system, which was the first system of connected standalone machines with advanced graphic abilities.

Once the first iterations of the ALTO/Ethernet system—and it is essential to understand the latter as a system and not as standalone computers—were up and running, they provided Kay with a formidable playground. Kay went back to some of his work in the 1960s, when he had analyzed SIMULA (an obscure Norwegian programming language), and developed this, with Dan Ingalls and Adele Goldberg, among others, into a hybrid between a programming language, an operating system, and a kid’s toy called Smalltalk. The first iterations of Smalltalk were experiments in object orientation that aimed to model all programming from scratch after a distributed system of message passing (Kay 1993): later versions gave up on this, and after an initial phase of success Smalltalk eventually lost the battle over the dominant form of object orientation to the likes of C++ and Java. But in the mid 1970ties the ALTO/Ethernet/Smalltalk system became a hotbed for an explosion of ideas about the graphical user interface (GUI) as well as dozens of now common applications. The work of Kay and his “Learning Research Group” can thus be seen as both a lost holy grail of computing before it was spoiled by a model of computing as capitalism cast in hard- and software, but also as one of the crucial genealogical hubs for its later emergence. And it is this double meaning that makes this work so unique and interesting to this day.

A whiteboard in the lab of Bret Victor’s group filled with papers by Alan Kay.

Alan Kay’s contributions to the history of computing are results of radical hacks of the computational paradigms and imaginaries of his time. Kay took heterodox programming techniques like the one pioneered by SIMULA, new visualization techniques like the ones developed by the Sutherland brothers, McCarthy cravings for “private computing” (1962:225) and Wes Clark’s lonely machines, the experiments in augmentation by Doug Engelbart’s group, and new ideas about distributed networks, to name a few. Such techniques were not common sense in the emerging professions of software engineering and programming, but had started to circulate in the elite engineering circles where Kay worked. Kay combined them with ideas about pedagogy, psychology, and mathematics by Maria Montessori, Seymour Papert, and Jerome Bruner, and added further zest in form of the sassy media theoretical speculations of Marshall McLuhan. Kay was also very early in understanding the implications of what Carver Mead called “Moore’s Law,” an exponential line of ever smaller, faster, and cheaper forms of computing kicked off by the mass-produced integrated circuit, and now leading to the positive feedback of technical development and the creation of new markets. So Kay took all of these ideas, desires, technologies, and opportunities, and recombined them. The results were crucial contributions to a new and emerging sociotechnical imaginary, in many ways representing the computer as a digital medium, which we now have today. Kay’s work can thus be seen as a benchmark in radical engineering, as such enabling us to critique the stalemate and possible decline in quality of most currently available imaginaries about technologies.

But is it really that easy? Is radical engineering simply the result of a bit of remixing? Obviously it is a much more complicated process. One of the most convincing descriptions of this process stems from another legendary radical engineer, the aforementioned Doug Engelbart. In 1962, a few years before Alan Kay started his career, Engelbart set the program for his own U.S. Air Force–funded research group at the Stanford Research Institute (Bardini 2000:1-32), aiming for nothing less than to re-engineer the “HLAM-T,” the “Human using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, in which he is Trained” (Engelbart 1962:9). This HLAM-T was always a cyborg, and as such it can be engaged in a continuous process of “augmenting human intellect.” According to Engelbart, the latter can be achieved through the process of “bootstrapping.” This is a term that can mean many things in the Silicon Valley, from initiating systems to kicking off startups, but in the context of Engelbart’s work, bootstrapping is the “…interesting (recursive) assignment of developing tools and techniques to make it more effective at carrying out its assignment. Its tangible product is a developing augmentation system to provide increased capability for developing and studying augmentation systems” (Engelbart and English 2003:234). Just as Moore’s so-called law, this is a dream of exponential progress emerging out of nonlinear, self-enforcing feedback. How much more Californian can you be?

For Engelbart and English’s description to be more than just a cybernetic pipedream, we need to remind ourselves that they were not only speaking about technical artifacts. Simply building prototypes with prototypes would not be a smart recipe for radical engineering: once in use, prototypes tend to break; thus, a toolset of prototypes would not be a very useful toolset for developing further prototypes. Bootstrapping as a process can thus only work if we assume that it is a larger process in which “tools and techniques” are developing with social structures and local knowledge over longer periods of time. The processes are recursive, much like the “recursive publics” that Chris Kelty (2008:30) describes for the free software development community: in both cases developers create sociotechnical infrastructures with which they can communicate and cooperate, which then spread to other parts of life. Kelty shows how such recursive effects are not simply the magical result of self-enforcing positive feedback. Recursive processes are based on politics. And resources. And qualified personnel. And care. And steering. In short, they need to be continually produced.

As such, bootstrapping can assume different scopes and directions. While Engelbart’s and English’s project might sound ambitious, they still believed, at least in the 1960s, that bootstrapping inside a research group would achieve the desired results. Alan Kay’s Learning Research Group extended this setting in the 1970s through pedagogy and McLuhanite media theory. By bringing children in, they aimed to achieve recursive effects beyond the lab, with the long-term goal of involving the whole world in a process akin to bootstrapping. Bret Victor and his research group’s form of bootstrapping resembles a multi-layered onion. The kind of people who should be part of it, and at what moments, can lead to intense internal discussion. Once the group launches “Dynamic Land” (see image), it will reach its next stage (to be described in a future paper). Meanwhile, bootstrapping has already taken many forms. Prototypes relate to the process of bootstrapping as pointers, feelers, searchers, riffs, scaffolds, operating systems, jams, representations, imaginary test cases, demos and so on. There is, indeed, a bestiary of prototyping techniques contained in the larger process of bootstrapping. Together, inside the lab, they produce a feeling of sitting inside a brain. The lab as a whole—its walls, desks, whiteboards, roofs, machines, and the people inhabiting it—functions as a first demo for an alternative medium.

A detail in the HARC Lab: Above, Alan Kay, in white jeans. Below: Engelbart’s 1962 paper, glued on a wall in San Francisco’s Mission district by Bret Victor.

Building the iterations of the series of operating systems can require substantial engineering tasks in the more classical sense; such as, for example, programming a kernel in C, or a process host in Haskell. But the overall endeavor is decidedly not driven by technology. In the spatial medium to come, computing is supposed to be reduced. Computing is to take the role of an infrastructure: much as books need light, but are not modeled after the light’s logic, the medium might draw, where necessary, on the computing possibilities provided by the OS in the background, but it should not be driven by them. Instead, the dynamic spatial medium should be driven by properties of the medium itself, and as such, it should drive technology. The medium’s properties are yet to be explored by the very process of bootstrapping it. In the parlance of the group, both the medium and the ways in which they produce this medium, are “from the future.” That future is not given, but depends on the medium the group is imagining. It thus depends on the properties of the medium that the group is exploring, selecting, and practicing. On the one hand, technology enables a new medium, which is imagined as shaping the future, on the other hand the future is imagined as shaping the new medium, which then should drive technology.

While most of the group’s work consists of building devices, speculative thought is part of their work as well. The latter enables the engineers to understand what the prototyping work unveils. It also gives the lab’s work direction, motivates its enterprise, and is part of acquiring funding. The overall process has by now led to a set of interconnected and evolving ideas and goals: One cluster looks, for example, for new ways of representing and understanding complex systems. A second cluster aims for more access to knowledge by undoing contemporary media’s restrictions (such as the restriction of the screen, which produces, with its peek-a-boo access to complexity, impenetrable forms of knowledge such as the trillions of lines of code, written on screens and then stared at on screens). A third cluster explores new forms of representing time, and a fourth one more effective inclusion of physical properties into the spatial media system. All these clusters would lead, so the goal and the assumption, to more seamless travels up and down the “ladder of abstraction” (Victor 2011.) As if to echo Nietzsche’s, McLuhan’s, or Kittler’s media theoretical musings with engineering solutions, a larger goal is to make new thoughts possible, which have until now remained “unthinkable” due to contemporary media’s inadequacies. Enhanced forms of embodied cognition, and better ways of cooperative generation of ideas could cure the loneliness and pain that are often part of deep thought. And all of it together might, to quote an internal email, “prevent the world from taking itself apart.”

One way to understand what’s going on here is to frame all this as an alternative form of “hacking.” When you “hack,” you might be said to be hacking apart or hacking together. Hacking apart could then be seen as the practices evolving out of the refusal to accept former acts of black boxing. Transferred to radical engineering, hacking apart would translate into not accepting the black boxes of present technological paradigms such as screen-based computers, or ready-made futures such as, say, “Smart Cities, Smart Homes” or the “Internet of Things.” Instead you would open such black boxes and dissect them: assumptions about what is deemed as technologically successful and about technological advances to come, matched by certain versions of social order, and often glued together with an unhealthy dose of business opportunity porn. The black boxes will most likely also contain ideas about the roles of the different types of engineers, programmers, designers, managers, and so on. If you take all this apart, you might look at the elements, throw away a lot of them, twist others, add stuff from elsewhere, and grow some on your own. You will look into different, often historical, technological paradigms, other ideas about what will become technologically possible (and when), different ideas of social order, the good life and problems that need addressing, other books to be read, alternative uses of the forces of media, and different ideas about the kind of people and the nature of their professions or non-professions, who should take charge of all this. If you are lucky, you have the conditions and abilities to work all this through in a long, non-linear process also known as bootstrapping, where you go through many iterations of hacking apart and hacking together, all the while creating fundamentally different ideas about what technologies should do, and could do, matched by a succession of devices and practices that help shape these ideas, and “demo” to yourself and others that some utopias might not be out of reach. This is what radical engineers do.

While they make considerable efforts to evade techno-solutionist fantasies, they don’t abandon engineering’s approach of addressing problems by building things, and they have developed an approach that one might call, once more for the lack of a better word, “radical media solutionism” (even though they have ambivalent attitudes in regards to the latter, too.) To prevent misunderstanding: neither I, nor the engineers I research, think that the actual future can be hacked together singlehandedly by a bunch of engineers in Palo Alto or Oakland. But I do think that radical engineers such as Engelbart’s, Kay’s, or maybe Victor’s research groups, in their specific, highly privileged positions, add something crucial to the complex assemblage of forces that move us in the direction of futures. My ongoing fieldwork makes me curious about what is produced here, and many people who visit the lab agree that the first “arrivals” are stunning and mind boggling indeed. If we believe the group’s self-perception, their technologies are, just like hacks, tentative interim solutions for something bigger that might arrive one day. The radical engineers would also be the first to state that the same interim solutions, if stopped in their development and reified too early, are potential sources of hacks in the derogatory sense. The latter is, according to their stories, exactly what happened when, 40 years ago, the prototypes left the labs too soon, and entered the world of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft, producing the accumulation of bad decisions that led to a world where people stare at smartphones.

Within such stories, radical engineers might employ a retrospective “could have been,” a “Möglichkeitssinn” (sense of possibility, Musil 1930/1990, 14-18) in hindsight, mixed with traces of distinction against “normal” engineers. Even though they distance themselves from Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial cultures, their isolation against the “Californian ideology” (Barbrook 2007; Barbrook and Cameron 1995) might not always be 100% tight. Indeed, they might provide the Silicon Valley mainstream with the fix of heterodoxy it so desperately needs. Yet the same radical engineers are potential allies to those, who aim to hack apart the libertarian, totalitarian and toothless imaginaries that Silicon Valley so often provides us with, be it the “Internet of Shit” or the “crapularity” (Cramer 2016). The conceptual poverty of most of Silicon Valley’s currently available futures surely can become visible from the perspectives of critical theory, from viewpoints of social movements, or through political economy’s analysis. But Silicon Valley’s timidity in thinking, which is only thinly veiled by the devastation it causes, also becomes apparent, if we compare it to radical engineering’s utopias.

Alan Kay in a Japanese manga by Mari Yamazaki

Götz Bachmann is based at Leuphana University, Germany and is currently a Visiting Fellow at Stanford. He is an ethnographer, with former fieldwork among warehouse workers, saleswoman, and cashiers in Germany, and among Japan’s Nico Chuu. He also authors the German children’s comic series KNAX.


Barbrook, Richard. 2007. Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village. London, UK: Pluto.

Barbrook, Richard, and David Cameron. 1995. “The Californian Ideology.” Mute 1(3) (republished in Proud to be Flesh, edited by Josephine Berry Slater and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, pp.27-34. London, UK: Mute Publishing)

Bardini, Thierry. 2000. Bootstrapping. Douglas Engelbart, Co-evolution and the Origin of Personal Computing. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cramer, Florian. 2016. “Crapularity Hermeneutics.” Available at link.

Engelbart, Doug. 1962. Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. Summary Report. AFO SR 3223. Stanford, CA: Stanford Research Institute.

Engelbart, Doug, and William English. 2003. “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect.” In The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, pp. 231–246. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jiménez, Alberto Corsín. 2014. “Introduction  – The Prototype: More than many and less than one.” In Journal of Cultural Economy 7(4):381-398

Kay, Alan C. 1969. “The Reactive Engine.” PhD dissertation, The University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

———. 1972. “A Personal Computer for Children of all Ages.” In Proceedings of the ACM National Conference, Boston (typed manuscript, no page numbers)

———. 1993. “The Early History of Smalltalk.” SIGPLAN Notices 28(3):69–95.

Kelty, Chris. 2008. Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

McCarthy, John. 1962. “Time-Sharing Computer Systems.” In Management and the Computer of the Future, edited by Martin Greenberger, pp. 221–236. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Musil, Robert. 1930. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities.) Vol. 1. Berlin, Germany: Rowohlt.

Suchman, Lucy, Randall Trigg, and Jeanette Blomberg. 2002. “Working artefacts: ethnomethods of the prototype.” In British Journal of Sociology 53(2):163–179.

Victor, Bret. 2011. “Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction. A Systematic Approach to Interactive Visualisation” link, accessed 8.2.17.

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IASC: The Hedgehog Review - Volume 19, No. 2 (Summer 2017)

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The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 2017)

We commonly think of hangovers as the next-day result of too much alcohol. We overdo it the night before, and the following morning we pay. We develop flu-like symptoms. We get a headache; our joints hurt; it’s an unpleasant thing to stare too long at the light, which seems all too inclined to stare back—hard. Whatever optimism we might have stored away in the vault of our psyche seems to have disappeared. We’re down, sorry, sad, and grim. We feel as if we have succeeded in poisoning ourselves—and the word is that we have. The word toxic hides in the middle of intoxication, like a rat in gift box. We’ve infected our bodies with toxins, and at first we got a happy ride. Some scientists speculate that the euphoria induced by drinking may come from the way alcohol summons forth energies to fight against the possibility that we’ve been poisoned. Being drunk, or even tipsy, thus understood, is elation as the defenders come roaring into the breach like a wave of charging knights. Banners flap, armor clangs, the hautboys sound in the air.

But then comes the morning, and it is time to pay. We arrive at the downside of the event. As high as we have mounted in delight, as the poet puts it, in dejection do we sink as low. That really does seem to be the case. The higher we’ve flown under the influence, the more down and dirty is the experience of the morning after.

There are a number of memorable literary accounts of the hangover, but none I’ve encountered outdoes Kingsley Amis’s in Lucky Jim. Jim is a young university instructor trying to find a place in the world. But the strain of seeking is considerable. One night Jim drinks more than he should and then quite a bit more after that. The next morning, he faces the hangover. Jim “stood brooding by his bed.… The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

Indeed, he did. Generally, one can’t in good taste laugh at someone, even a fictional someone, who feels quite as bad as Jim does. But the hangover is different from most other kinds of suffering. As generations of mothers and fathers have said to their wayward kids about one sorrow or another, “You brought this on yourself.” If you hadn’t filled the third glass, then the fourth and then the—how many were there?—you wouldn’t have that washcloth on your head and it wouldn’t hurt quite so much as it does to look at things.

But really, wasn’t it worth it? The night before, it was a pleasure to look at things. It was a particular pleasure to look at a comely someone, and maybe be looked at in return. The possibilities seemed endless, or at least far improved over what they had been in the afternoon. And everything else you looked at, the barstools and the tables and even the beer glass, didn’t seem quite so alien, quite so other as they usually do. Somehow objects gave off an encouraging, almost amiable glow. And by contrast with that dusty thudding in the head the morning after, the night before there had been a serene and steady kind of subliminal sound—they don’t call it “getting a buzz on” for nothing. Even the thoughts that came through that serenely humming brain were good ones, kind and hopeful and upbeat. Wallace Stevens speaks of “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind”—well, yes, that too. The bad thoughts were evaded, or at least didn’t seem half so bad in the roseate glow of a few drinks.

Sure, on the morning after, the mouth—that oh-so-sensitive organ—can be a particular torment. Amis may go over the top, but still: A small woodland creature of the night voids himself there, then finds it a convenient place to end its days. (Elvis Presley, stepping to the mic in Vegas, complaining, maybe, of his own hangover, once growled, “My mouth feels like Bob Dylan’s been sleeping in it.”) But the night before—ah, the night before—the mouth was a source of great pleasure—the marvelous taste and scent of the wine, the beer, or the spirits.

And there were perhaps other oral pleasures too—the pleasure of talk, for one. Liquor pushes the conversational needle out of the conventional zone, or it can. We hear wonderful words from our friends; we say good things that we never could have if not for the influence of the drinks and the company. Wine makes poets of us all, or at least sends us farther into the poetic seas than we usually sail, being for the most part conversational shore huggers. We begin finishing other people’s sentences—and they like it, love it. Our memory goes into blissful overdrive—back come old stories, woven together with new words. We make metaphors like never yet. Robert Frost said he wanted a kind of literary criticism that would praise feats of verbal connection: He wanted praise for the ability to be reminded of this by that, and for the connection to be stunningly apt. (He wanted praise, say, for the way a boy swinging on birches could remind him of how to write a poem: Elevate only so far, only so far—but farther than you thought you could—then most gracefully descend back to earth.) And in our cups, with the help of our cups, we are reminded of this by that, and the marriage of the two is often stunningly right.

In his bender-induced agony, Amis’s Jim felt like a man who’d been on a cross-country run and then been beaten up by the police, secret police at that. It’s not surprising that the cops would want to get at Jim after his night of debauchery. For we might say that the intoxicated mind is often the un-policed mind. Thoughts run free: There is no longer anyone directing the mind’s traffic. But the result is not always mental snarl or even accidents, but often a free flow of thinking (and sometimes doing) that goes outside the bounds of the normal. After a drink or two, the internal lines blur; we transgress, or at least we’re tempted to. We disobey the standard rules and regulations, or we can imagine doing so. What Freud calls the superego and Christians call conscience clamors less: You can’t quite hear the old parental voice calling from the backbench, Don’t! Cut it out! We’ll have no more of that around here!

But then in the morning, the police are back again, in force, to retake the territory they were compelled to cede the night before. Your body hurts too! And your mind doesn’t work quite right today. Ah me, alas—pain ever, forever, as the poet says—or at least until tomorrow morning. Or maybe this afternoon, the hair of the dog that bit you being the only remedy I know of that ever helps much.

The god most closely associated with intoxication is Dionysus, and he seems to have the power to assume almost any shape. Just so, there are numberless words for alcohol—booze, hooch, tipple, toddy, juice. The names for being drunk are perhaps even more plentiful: smashed, loaded, stiff, bombed, pickled, plastered, ripped—they never stop. But if I were to select a single synonym for alcohol, it would be one of the most common and surely one of the more sedate. Spirits seems to me to come closer than any other term to getting to the core of the experience, at least as I’ve had it.

Isn’t that ultimately what alcohol confers? Spirits. It elevates our vitality, plumps our vigor, gives us more juice and jam. Alcohol is a muse of fire. It burns away what is mucky and slothful in us. It takes what is airy within and turns it to crackling potential power. Spirits: It’s not for nothing that Homer’s warriors and many fighters thereafter fortified themselves with wine. It raises the intensity of the passions. It restores courage. It re-ignites the desire for ascendancy after it’s been subdued by the rough resistance of the world. Sometimes alcohol raises the spirits too high. Then what we have is mayhem: broken bottles, busted knuckles, a face-down in the street, a car wrapped around a telephone pole.

But most of the time, alcohol gives us more guts and more gumption, more confidence. It pushes us across the room to talk to him, talk to her. It lets us pop off in public—at a sedate dinner, maybe—surprising our friends (and often ourselves) with the artful exuberance of our opinions. (Has there ever been anyone—with the possible exception of Plato—who knew all of what he thought on a given subject until he heard what, under the influence of a warming glass or two, he actually had to say?) Dionysus is also known as Luscious, Eleutherios (“the Liberator”), and alcohol can be exactly that, a breaker of the bars of the self-constructed jails that too many of us inhabit too much of the time. And for that reason, as Lucky Jim discovered, the police often take an interest.

A hangover is about being poisoned, no doubt. The toxins linger in the body and must be expelled, or waited out. We’re sick with a mini-flu and need to get better. But isn’t a hangover about more than physical toxins, at least some of the time? I’ll wager that a hangover is frequently about shame as well. What did I do? Why did I do it? And why was it with him, with her? The hung-over mind is often taken up with the movie of the past night’s misadventures. We sit in the audience, unable to move, jammed in our seat and bearing grim witness to what we should not have said and done. We’ve danced and even in some measure paid the piper—those drinks weren’t free. But now it’s time to look at ourselves in our shame. Even minor transgressions—talking too much, talking too loud, too candidly—can come back to bedevil us. We’re in the theater of our own clownish excess; we’ve become the antihero of our private flick.

Last night we were whole, and now we’re split at least in half—the part that acted and the part that, now, renders judgment. As David Lenson puts it in his impossibly good book On Drugs (1995), “The aftermath of the high is therefore more than a physiological reaction, more than headache and nausea. It is also the vengeful rebuilding of all those barriers the drug was able momentarily to dissolve.” Alcohol dissolves the barriers between desire and modulation, between aspiration and judgment and sometimes between the I and another. Come morning, though, those barriers need to be rebuilt, and what we feel is the loud and ugly clanking of the reconstruction, of jagged walls being raised up again.

Alcohol might be said to traffic in the same territory that religion does. Religion often means to put us in contact with the spirit or to let the spirit rise up inside us. “Every time I feel the spirit moving in my heart, I will pray,” the old song says. And the song, of course, is what’s called a spiritual. The spirit within moves, and we move with it.

Has anyone ever taken up the subject of the religious hangover? Is it possible that when the service is over, the spirituals have been sung, and the visitation is at an end, there is a sense of loss? The inner barriers have broken down and the worshiper has been made whole. But maybe the next day there’s also (to borrow from Lenson) a “vengeful rebuilding” of the interior walls not unlike the process that follows a bender. Or maybe that hangover comes only when the communicant has been thoroughly disillusioned with the faith. It does happen—people given to religious ecstasy are well known to move from one spiritual venue to the other in desperate search of inspiration. (One might more cruelly say that they move in desperate search of a fix.) Is there a religious hangover? Is there a morning after of faith?

I’d dare say that there is another area of experience that produces a hangover with some frequency—the experience of sexual love. Perhaps disillusionment in love comes in two doses, reduced and full strength. We’ve all heard about the more modest version. Freud unpleasantly says that every act of sexual enjoyment decreases the value the lover confers upon the beloved. Not uncommon among males, to be sure. But in our world, rife with more sexually adventurous females than Freud could have imagined, it may be the case with some women too. The larger dose comes at the end of an affair—the breakup, and the grief and sorrow that follow. One mourns the loss of the beloved. One mourns the loss of love in one’s life. Might not that be a sort of hangover too?

Once again, boundaries are being cruelly reconstructed. Once you and I were one, now we are, painfully, sadly, no longer united. We are two different nations, perhaps warring, perhaps at aggrieved peace. Does a fractured love affair induce some headaches, some lethargy, despondency, hatred for the world and all it contains? I dare say it often does. All philosophies seek to dominate the world, and often they should simply back off. But the philosophy of the hangover may proudly assert that hangovers are more common and pervasive than most people imagine. And—here is the crucial point—the hangover is not only an aftermath of booze and drugs. The hangover may also pertain to failed idealizations of many sorts: Religious disillusion (or fatigue) may qualify as a sort of hangover; erotic loss or disappointment may also be described with reference to the philosophy of the morning after.

Is there a political hangover? Perhaps the experience of helping to elect a candidate who looks like a redeemer but is simply a skilled player, and who has no more interest in rescuing the world than he does in flying to the moon, is one that ends in something akin to the hangover. Maybe great art leaves a hangover, for producer and consumer alike; maybe battle, even what appeared to be heroic battle, sometimes does.

Any aspiration that takes one out of straight and narrowly normal life may well end in hangover-like disillusion. Not to admire anything, Horace famously said, is the only way to feel really good about yourself. Do you want to live a contented, stable, normal, productive life? Don’t drink. And don’t engage in any of the activities that can be akin to drinking. Don’t fall in love, don’t swoon for God, don’t try to change the world, don’t attempt to dissolve the state and remake it again. Hangovers hurt. And sometimes of course they are well deserved. The people of Germany will be nursing theirs for a long time. And when their morning after is over, what then?

But never to venture anything grand—never to attempt to reach the heights: Is that a life worth living? How can we exist without aspiration? For there is the danger that we would, quite simply, bore ourselves to death. No, many of us are willing to chance it and pursue La Belle Dame sans Merci, whatever shape she takes, and then, as Keats claims he does, wake up on that hillside, “alone and palely loitering.”

“I can’t be satisfied,” the bluesman wails. “I can’t be satisfied.” In those lines, I hear the voice of Muddy Waters, and almost every other Chicago or Delta crooner who held a juke joint in suspense or sent it leaping and lunging. I can’t be satisfied. That is, there’s not enough liquor in the world for me and not enough love—surely there isn’t enough sex. Whatever there might be that stokes my spirit is in too short supply, and if there were more and much more, that wouldn’t be enough, because I’m hungry all the time.

But most of the time the blues are about lamentation. The blues, as everyone knows, are about sorrow and about loss. They’re particularly about the loss of love, of course. The singer has always fallen in love with the wrong woman or the wrong man, and there were glorious days, sure, but now it’s over and it’s time to pay. Or, almost as bad, the bluesman has fallen out of love himself and is now cast down. The thrill is gone, as B.B. King sings. The thrill is gone away for good. Thousands of others spin it in a thousand ways: The thrill is gone away for good. The blues are often the song of the morning after. The blues are frequently the song of the loss that may never be repaired, the love that won’t be restored. So many women and so many men have done each other wrong—so much erotic suffering in the world.

But it’s about more than erotic suffering in the literal sense. For the blues singer is often one for whom the erotic life has become the spiritual life. “Stormy weather,” Billie Holiday sings, “Since my man and I ain’t together, / Keeps rainin’ all the time.” Inner weather determines the weather of the outside world. Everything seems to have been invested in the beloved, the one who now has betrayed trust, gone off with another, broken faith. And the blues singer cries out against the betrayal. But there’s something muted about the cry. The blues aren’t generally histrionic or shocked. They tend rather to be melancholy, resigned, with an occasional touch of self-mockery: This isn’t the first time. It’s happened before. I’ve been betrayed and busted more than once.

The blues, one might say, are the accompaniment to mourning—or, rather, they’re an attempt to help a man or woman traverse the heavy seas of grief. In describing the work of mourning, Freud says that every hope and desire that has attached to what we have lost is brought up in the psyche, embraced, and finally dismissed—and thus the disengagement of the spirit is achieved in time. The blues singer says farewell to her hopes about love by bringing up in her song what was most dear to her and saying goodbye to it. She brings the work of mourning into the foreground and makes it melodious—in the strange way that the blues are melodious—and so, by the enchantment that is music, gathers others into her circle of grief and (eventually) the liberation from grief. For at some point the last song will be sung, the last farewell spoken; the ego will be free and uninhibited again. As Stanley Crouch puts it, “The blues is played to get rid of the blues.”

The hangover has a physical dimension, no doubt about that. You’ve gone and poisoned yourself. But it’s something else as well. The hangover is mourning for the feeling of wholeness that you had the night before. You look back at a time when you attained—or stole—the experience Jean-Paul Sartre calls being in itself. (Though Sartre does not approve of this condition, not a bit. It’s fine for plants and animals, but not for humans.) You had made yourself fully present to life and fully at ease within it. You weren’t oppressed by the past and you weren’t worried about the future. But now that time’s gone and you feel the loss. There’s nothing to do, then, but make your way to the end of your grief, and return to the habitual self. Singing the blues may help a bit, like singing a rowing chantey as we pull and pull and the boat slowly makes its way back out to sea. Then we’re back into time and back into being for in itself—when we’re awake to death and awake to limits—when we have again become anxious and partial beings, entering the state that Heidegger and Sartre think our most authentic.

The blues are often the song of mourning and the song of the hangover, a hangover sometimes being essentially no more than a case of mourning—mourning for the night before. But one often feels that when the work of mourning is over, when the hangover has passed, the singer will be off pursuing love and joy once again. Truth is truth: She can’t be satisfied. And that’s a sad enough condition. But those who can be satisfied on this earth, what’s there to say for them? Perhaps they are not asking for enough.

Mark Edmundson is University Professor in the Department of English at the University of Virginia. His most recent books are Why Write? A Master Class on the Art of Writing and Why It Matters (2016) and Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals (2015).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.2 (Summer 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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3 days ago
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Stopping The Internet Of Noise

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The internet is getting noisy. Too noisy. Having grown up in the nineties, with 56k dial-up, I sometimes struggle to understand how little I'm accomplishing today with all the bandwidth I can leverage.

There were some key factors that made the old internet so productive, by the way, and many of those factors are just gone.

This is not just a rant. I have some proposals as well.


Most discussions on the internet once happened in Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists. You could even access mailing lists via NNTP (the newsgroup protocol) using a great service like gmane.

40tude Dialog

40tude Dialog was my favourite newsreader at the time. I could subscribe to a lot of different newsgroups, without needing to sign up for each of them, and it was very easy to catch up with lots of traffic - just a matter of checking which messages had still the title in bold.

There was a single application with a consistent interface to access the most disparate groups, and topics were widely enforced - probably the most common complaint from newsgroup users was that somebody was off topic - such discussions were quickly criticized and got little attention.


Once was IRC, the Internet Relay Chat. mIRC was the king of clients for a while.

an irc chat

IRC, sometimes, was not great, lacking some advanced features for multimedia and emojis, but it was good. There were plenty of channels with specific topics, and you could join them in a second.

Then, other instant messengers picked up - ICQ, MSN, AOL, etc - but it wasn't a great issue; the protocols they used were mostly simple, and tools like Trillian and Pidgin/Adium quickly reversed them and let the users just pick one client with multiple connections. Skype was a bit of a white fly because its original protocol was harder to reverse.

Again, there was an easy way to get a consistent interface in a single application to chat on IRC, Google Chat, Facebook Chat, generic XMPP, and so on.

Getting notified about updates

Oh, this is was easy, wasn't it? RSS and Atom just ruled the world. Bloglines and the beloved Google Reader were the first stop, every morning, for many developers.

Some blogger just putting too much shit on its blog? We remove him from our feed! No matter what!

google reader

We could simply pull our update sources within one single application, and check all the updates when we had the time to.

I can remember my workflow: scroll through the sources, open any interesting article in a new tab, mark all feeds as read; then go through the tabs until I finished. Job done. I could, at the same time, read a lot of interesting thing and discard a lot of uninteresting shit.

What happened

If you take a look at was the state of things, you can notice that:

  • Focus is lost; once, everything went around topics. Channels had topics; newsgroups had topics; blog had topics (one great rule for a blog was to have a 'razor sharp' focus). Nowadays we have people instead of topics. I have nothing against people, but maybe, if I follow a great software architect, I'd like to hear what he's got to say about software, not about other shits.
  • There are multiple platforms lacking an API: nowadays I'm forced to switch between Slack, Telegram, Whatsapp, Discord, Skype and whatever IM is going to be the most hip tomorrow. There are hundreds of forums - maybe the retain a topic, but they don't offer a consistent way of pulling content into a single application. Facebook and Twitter - while there used to be some apps that allowed integrating such feeds into a single app, they're long gone as far as I know. StackOverflow mitigates the issue with an acceptable RSS feed, even though it's not as customizable as I'd like. Many websites just stopped offering RSS feeds at all, or stopped making them customizable, and just push their updates - ALL of their updates - on Facebook and Twitter. I used to be an avid Lifehacker reader, back when they had category-based RSS feeds, but at once... they just stopped providing such service.
  • Can't mark things as read. Have you ever noticed that? Inbox Zero once was a good practice for every workflow. Facebook and Twitter simply don't allow this functionality. You cannot mark a tweet or post as read, it could resurface at any time. And you cannot see which posts or tweets you've not read yet - probably because the amount would be simple overwhelming. You need to waste your time on such websites.
Where we want to go

We want to reverse all this. We need:

  • Topics. Google Plus created somethings similar to that with Collections (without RSS, of course); or we could just create a blog or username for each of our topics - I think most of us won't discuss about so many totally unrelated different fields. It's a change of mentality - we shouldn't write something just because we can. Unless we are celebrities, people, especially strangers, won't follow us just for the sake of it - we need actual, quality content. Smallchat is fine on FB or Twitter.
  • APIs. I'm not saying we should get back to IRC or to NNTP. But we need a common API for Instant Messaging and forum-like software, so that people can use their favourite tools to organize their data sources. Installing tens of apps or visiting tens of websites every day is not an option.

Incidentally, this is not a call for the open internet; I could not care less if there's a leading provider for content, as long as such content is accessible in a standard way.

This is a call for a useful internet back again.

(Incidentally, this is not the usual focus of this blog, which is mostly technical. But I hope my audience will forgive me, this is something important, IMHO).

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18 days ago
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From Ptolemy to GPS, the Brief History of Maps | Innovation

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Last spring, a 23-year-old woman was driving her car through the Ontario town of Tobermory. It was unfamiliar territory for her, so she was dutifully following her GPS. Indeed, she was so intent on following the device that she didn’t notice that her car was headed straight for Georgian Bay—so she drove down a boat launch and straight into the frigid water. She thankfully managed to climb out and swim to shore, as her bright red Yaris sank beneath the waves.

Accidents like this have become weirdly common. In Manhattan, one man followed his GPS into a park, where his car got stuck on a staircase. And in Europe, a 67-year-old Belgian woman was led remarkably astray by her GPS, turning what was supposed to be a 90-mile drive to Brussels into a daylong voyage into Germany and beyond. Amazingly, she just patiently followed the computer’s instructions, instead of relying on her own common sense, until she noticed the street signs were in Croatian.

You can laugh, but many of us have stopped paying attention to the world around us because we are too intent on following directions. Some observers worry that this represents a new and dangerous shift in our style of navigation. Scientists since the 1940s have argued we normally possess an internal compass, “a map-like representation within the ‘black box’ of the nervous system,” as geographer Rob Kitchin puts it. It’s how we know where we are in our neighborhoods, our cities, the world.

Is it possible that today’s global positioning systems and smartphones are affecting our basic ability to navigate? Will technology alter forever how we get around?

Most certainly—because it already has. Three thousand years ago, our ancestors began a long experiment in figuring out how they fit into the world, by inventing a bold new tool: the map.

One of the oldest surviving maps is, ironically, about the size and shape of an early iPhone: the Babylonian Map of the World. A clay tablet created around 700 to 500 B.C. in Mesopotamia, it depicts a circular Babylon at the center, bisected by the Euphrates River and surrounded by the ocean. It doesn’t have much detail—a few regions are named, including Assyria—but it wasn’t really for navigation. It was more primordial: to help the map-holder grasp the idea of the whole world, with himself at the center.

“There was something almost talismanic, I think, about having the world in your hand,” says Jerry Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London who specializes in cartography. Indeed, accuracy wasn’t a great concern of early map-drawers. Maps were more a form of artistic expression, or a way of declaring one’s fiefdom. Centuries later, the Romans drew an extensive map of their empire on a long scroll, but since the map was barely a foot high and dozens of feet wide, it couldn’t be realistic. It was more of a statement, an attempt to make Rome’s sprawl feel cohesive.

The first great attempt to make mapping realistic came in the second century A.D. with Claudius Ptolemy. He was an astronomer and astrologer obsessed with making accurate horoscopes, which required precisely placing someone’s birth town on a world map. “He invented geography, but it was just because he wanted to do better horoscopes,” notes Matthew Edney, a professor of cartography at the University of Southern Maine.

Ptolemy gathered documents detailing the locations of towns, and he augmented that information with the tales of travelers. By the time he was done, he had devised a system of lines of latitude and longitude, and plotted some 10,000 locations—from Britain to Europe, Asia and North Africa. Ptolemy even invented ways to flatten the planet (like most Greeks and Romans, he knew the Earth was round) onto a two-dimensional map. What did he call his new technique? “Geography.”

After the Roman Empire fell, Ptolemy’s realistic geography was lost to the West for almost a thousand years. Once again, maps were concerned more with story­telling: A famous 12th-century map made by the Islamic scholar al-Sharif al-Idrisi—commissioned by his protector and patron, King Roger II of Sicily, a Christian—neatly blended Islamic and Christian cities together, while centering the world on (of course) Roger’s landholdings.

Other Christian maps cared even less about accuracy: They were mappaemundi, designed to show how the story of Christ penetrated the world. The most famous of these was made in Hereford, England—a massive 5- by 4-foot creation drawn on a single animal skin. Almost none of Europe, Asia or North Africa is recognizable, and strange wonders run amok: A lynx struts across Asia Minor (“it sees through walls and urinates a black stone,” the mapmakers note); Noah’s Ark is perched up in Armenia; Africa is populated by people with eyes and mouths in their shoulders.

At the top of the map—which faced east, the holiest direction—were pictures showing Adam and Eve tossed out of Eden, and Christ returning on the Day of Judgment. The map wasn’t intended to get you from town to town. It was designed to guide you to heaven.


Today’s high-tech devices aren’t the only tools leading voyagers astray. And some “mistakes” were made deliberately.


As the Renaissance dawned, maps began to improve. Commerce demanded it—ships were crossing oceans, and kings engaged in empire-building needed to chart their lands. Technology drove maps to greater accuracy: The advent of reliable compasses helped create “portolan” maps, which had lines crisscrossing the sea from port to port, helping guide sailors. Ptolemy’s ancient work was rediscovered, and new maps were drawn based on his thousand-year-old calculations.

Indeed, Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America was partly due to Ptolemy—and errors in his cartography. Columbus carried a map influenced by the ancient Roman’s work. But Ptolemy thought the world was 30 percent smaller than it actually is; worse, the mapmaker was using Arabian miles, which were longer than Italian ones. Together these mistakes led Columbus to believe the voyage to Asia would be much shorter. It was an early example of a GPS-like near disaster.

As sea trade increased, maps of the New World became better, at least the seacoasts and major rivers, places the beaver trade depended on. The inland of America was mostly a mystery; mapmakers often draw it as a big blank space labeled “terra incognita.”

“The coastlines were accurate, but they weren’t as concerned about the interiors,” notes John Rennie Short, a professor and cartography expert at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “The rest is, like, Who knows? As long as you keep bringing the beavers, we don’t care.”

Sea voyages became easier after 1569, when Gerardus Mercator unveiled the single greatest innovation in mapping after Ptolemy: the Mercator Projection. A polymath who was equally skilled in engraving and mathematics, Mercator figured out the best trick yet to represent the surface of a globe on a map—by gradually widening the landmasses and oceans the farther north and south they appear on the map. This was a great aid to navigation, but it also subtly distorted how we see the world: Countries close to the poles—like Canada and Russia—were artificially enlarged, while regions at the Equator, like Africa, shrank.

This was becoming the cardinal rule of maps: “No map entirely tells the truth,” notes Mark Monmonier, author of How to Lie With Maps. “There’s always some distortion, some point of view.”


Indeed, everyday people were realizing that a map was an act of persuasion, a visual rhetoric. In 1553, gentry in Surrey, England, drew a map of the town’s central fields, to prove these were common lands—and that villagers thus should be allowed to graze animals there. The map, they wrote, would allow for “the more playne manifest and direct understondying” of the situation. Maps, says Rose Mitchell, a map archivist at the National Archives of the U.K., were “used to settle arguments.” Meanwhile, educated people began collecting maps and displaying them “to show off how knowledgeable they were,” she adds. Even if you couldn’t read the words on a map from a foreign country, you could generally understand it, and even navigate by it. The persuasive power of a map was its glanceability. It was data made visual.

Maps weren’t just symbols of power: They conferred power. With a good map, a military had an advantage in battle, a king knew how much land could be taxed. Western maps showing Africa’s interior as empty—the mapmakers had little to go on—gave empires dreamy visions of claiming Africa for themselves: All that empty space seemed, to them, ripe for the taking. Maps helped propel the depredations of colonialism, as Simon Garfield argues in On the Map.

The United States after Lewis and Clark showed Americans just how much West there was to be won. Mind you, their trip was hellish: Previous maps were so vague they showed the Rockies as a single mountain range. “So they thought they were just going to cruise up to it, go over the top, and pop their canoes back in the river and go all the way to Pacific,” laughs David Rumsey, who created Stanford’s map collection in his name. “And it was a bloody nightmare, up and down, up and down.”

Maps were so valuable that seafarers plundered them. When the 17th-century buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp captured a Spanish ship, he exulted over his cartographic haul: “In this prize I took a Spanish manuscript of prodigious value,” he later wrote. “It describes all the ports, harbors, bayes, Sands, rock & rising of the land....They were going to throw it over board but by good luck I saved it. The Spanish cried when I gott the book.”


By the late 19th century, the surge in mathematic reasoning and measurement technology made mapmaking explode. In France, the Cassini family crisscrossed the country to calculate its dimensions with precision never before seen. Their trick? Using “triangulation”—a bit of trigonometry—to let them stitch together thousands of measurements taken by peering through the new, high-tech “theodolite.” Breakthroughs in binocular lenses allowed surveyors to measure scores of miles at a glance. World maps became increasingly accurate.

Local mapping became deeply granular. The British Ordnance Survey began mapping the U.K. down to the square yard, and the German entrepreneur Karl Baedeker produced similarly nuanced maps of European cities. Tourists could now confidently tour foreign realms, their annually updated guides in hand, able to locate individual buildings, much like today’s citizens peering at Google Maps on their phones. Being prominent on a local map was valuable to merchants, so mapmakers in the U.S. sold the rights. “If you paid more, you’d get your building cited,” Short notes. “It was like advertising.”

Maps could change the way people understood the world around them. In the 1880s, the social reformer Charles Booth produced a moral map of London, with houses color-coded by income and—in Booth’s shaky calculations—criminal tendencies. (Areas colored yellow were “wealthy,” while black ones were “Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.”) Booth wanted to help aid the poor by showing geography was tied to destiny, but his techniques wound up reinforcing it: in the U.S., banks began to “redline” poor neighborhoods, refusing to loan money to anyone in their precincts.

By the 20th century, maps helped win the Second World War. Winston Churchill fought with guidance from his “map room,” an underground chamber where up to 40 military staffers would shove colored pins into the map-bedecked walls; Churchill adorned his bedroom wall with a huge map showing Britain’s coast, constantly visualizing in his mind how to defend it against invasion.


These days, our maps seem alive: They speak, in robotic voices, telling us precisely where to go—guided by the satellites and mapping of companies like Waze, Google, Bing and Mapquest. “There’s something fun about turn-by-turn directions,” says Greg Milner, author of Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture and Our Minds. “It’s very seductive.” There’s no need even to orient yourself to north: The robot voice tells you to turn right, turn left, with you always at the center.

Milner worries, though, that GPS is weakening something fundamental in ourselves, corroding not just our orientation skills, but how well we remember the details of the world around us. A 2008 study in Japan found that people who used a GPS to navigate a city developed a shakier grasp of the terrain than those who consulted a paper map or those who learned the route via direct experience. Similarly, a 2008 Cornell study found that “GPS eliminates much of the need to pay attention.” Some map historians agree that a subtle change is at hand. Short tells me that he likes the convenience of GPS-brokered directions—“but what I do lose is the sense of how things hang together.”

Rumsey isn’t convinced of this loss, though. As he argues, the convenience of GPS and online mapping means we live in an increasingly cartographic age. Many online searches produce a map as part of the search results—for a local store, a vacation spot, live traffic updates before heading home. People today see far more maps in a single day than they used to, Rumsey notes: “The more you interact with maps, the more agile you become. Maps beget more maps.” When Rumsey first started collecting and displaying maps in the 1970s, people said, Why bother? These are old and out of date; who cares? Now when people visit his collection at Stanford they “get it right away. That’s because they’ve been exposed.”

It’s possible both effects are true. When I decide to order some takeout, my phone will—like a robot Baedeker—generate a map of local places that are open. It’s true that if I walked to one, I’d just numbly be following zigzagging turn-by-turn directions. But on the other hand, I look at that little gustatorial mappamundi of my neighborhood pretty often; I could probably draw it from memory by now.

Technology hasn’t changed some of our oldest urges. The historian Brotton once visited Google, where the engineers showed him a huge, wall-sized version of Google Earth. They asked him, whenever a visitor shows up to try it out, what’s the first thing they zoom in to look for? Their own home.

“They go, wow, look at that!” Brotton says. It’s the same perspective as the people who held that Babylonian clay tablet nearly three millennia ago: using a map to figure out where, exactly, we stand.

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25 days ago
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Decompiled & Remixed History: The Making of Exchange

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I believe strongly in self-teaching, in turning every project into a source of insight as well as a tangible product. Exchange began as a prestigious commission, and came to be one of my favorite self-generated lessons.

As part of a redesign of The Wall Street Journal, Design Director Joe Dizney, Art Director David Pybas and design consultant Mario García agreed that they needed a new typeface for text. Apart from the usual hazards of newspaper printing, the entire page was getting narrower, and the existing typeface would not be able to keep pace. So this new typeface would need to be stingy as well as clear.

Years before, at the request of The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, I had designed Poynter Oldstyle for newspaper text. The design concept was an unlikely hybrid: the work of a sixteenth-century punchcutter, crossed with the pioneering work of Linotype’s Legibility Series from the 1920s and 1930s. The acrobatics through history left me thinking: could this kind of picking and remixing go deeper, more abstract — past the shapes and directly to the strategies? The Journal’s commission seemed like a chance to try this idea, which I would later call “decompiled history”.

Historic typography

Ionic Series, E. Gyles & Sons. (undated specimen)

Originating in 19th century Britain, the “Ionic” style of slab serif used large, long serifs to mark off the footprint of each letter, and lead the eye from one letter to the next. These serifs were too large to be practical in this project, and evoked a style that would surely be too antiquated. Still, those serifs were just the kind of twine I needed, binding letters into the packages that we need to pick up as we read. I needed this behavior from Ionic, not any exact shape.

Historic typography

Bell Gothic by C. H. Griffith, Linotype 1937.

An ocean away and a hundred years later, C H Griffith designed Bell Gothic at Linotype. Targeted at telephone directories, it had a defensive system built into its lowercase, with deep arches that emphasized the gesture of each letter and created deliberate asymmetries to further clarify identity. The Journal’s brief was for a seriffed face obviously, so I couldn’t glean anything literal here. Still, the new design could benefit from this concept of reinforcing the lowercase through its arches and counterforms. (For any text face, the thinking begins in the lowercase, which will comprise the overwhelming majority of running text.)

Modern typography

Different strategies for Exchange’s interior and exterior.

These two became the “teachers” for Exchange, the sources for its lessons. What soon developed was something else I hadn't tried before: separate strategies for the interior and exterior of each letter. The exterior took its lessons from the British Ionic and its loud, binding serifs. The interior learned from Bell Gothic and its deep branches and asymmetries.

Full diligence means studying the strengths as well as the flaws, and the earliest renditions of the Ionic style were a bit short-sighted about those big serifs. They did a great job of sticking together visually, affiliating each letter closely with its neighbors. But the clearance between inside serifs was smaller than the same clearance outside. It meant that the letters would stick to themselves before they would stick to their neighbors, as we need them to. (Studying the old specimens and realizing what was happening, I couldn’t help but think of adhesive tape folding over and sticking to itself, becoming unusable.)

Historic typography

Clearance between inside and outside serifs, in Ionic (above) and Exchange (below).

So Exchange makes a point of inverting this relationship, with interior clearances being more open than those on the exterior, making the letters sticky (as it were) in a more constructive way. Happily, these opened interiors also change the apparent width, hiding some of the narrowness and mitigating the crowded feeling it can easily create.

Historic typography

Agate Roman No. 17, Marder & Luse. (1889 specimen)

Exchange has a third teacher, its lesson applied much closer to the surface. For all the sneaky planning about optics and presswork, this still had to feel like the news. Above everything else, newspapers want — need — to feel credible. Politically left, right or center, a newspaper should speak in a trustworthy voice.

Traditionally, newspapers have drawn from a very narrow part of the typographic spectrum to signal their credibility. Through most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, newspapers spoke in the same voice: the stern, high-contrast rhythm of the Victorian Modern. (As an aside: “Rationalist” is a much better term, though it’s largely unrecognized here in the States.)

Historic typography

Century Expanded by L. B. and M. F. Benton, American Type Founders 1900.

Century Expanded is the most well-known descendant of this line, and I used it to tune Exchange’s outward voice. It's sometimes helpful or just tempting to anthropomorphize typefaces, and I liked to think of Century Expanded as being a kind of voice coach for Exchange, getting it to speak with the calm and exact pronunciation of a TV newsreader.

Historic typography

Century Expanded’s inward turn.

Like all Moderns of that period, Century’s overall gesture turns back on itself whenever it can. That inward turn makes the shapes feel anchored to the baseline, projecting stability and gravitas. It’s why Century looks immovable. Exchange’s outside contours repeat the same inward, grounding movement — but clip off the back of the terminals so they don’t crowd the space behind them. It’s an extension of the broader idea of treating the exterior and interior as separate problems with their own goals and strategies.

Modern typography

Test from The Wall Street Journal’s presses.

All of these lessons — sought out, extracted, recombined, revised, tested on the Journal’s presses, revised again — became Exchange, named for New York’s stock exchanges. (See the Exchange retail family here)

There is so much to learn from past designers and their work, but those lessons are so often obscured by the taste or technology of that particular time. In designing Exchange, I was looking for a more flexible and effective relationship with typographic history, accessing and learning from all of the past, not just the parts which are lucky enough to still be in fashion.

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30 days ago
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Dan Jones, Artist | Spitalfields Life

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In the third of my series of profiles of artists featured in EAST END VERNACULAR, Artists who painted London’s East End streets in the 20th century to be published by Spitalfields Life Books in October, I present the joyous vision of Dan Jones. Click here to learn how you can support the publication of EAST END VERNACULAR

Click to enlarge Dan Jones’ painting of Brick Lane 1978

In Dan Jones’ exuberant and playful painting, Brick Lane is a stage upon which an epic political drama is enacted. From this vantage point at the corner of the Truman Brewery, we see an Anti-Racist demonstration advancing up Brick Lane, while a bunch of skinheads stand at the junction with Hanbury St outside the fortuitously named “Skin Corner.” Meanwhile, a policeman stops a black boy on the opposite corner in front of a partially visible sign reading as “Sus,” in reference to the “Sus” law that permitted police to stop and search anyone on suspicion, a law repealed in 1981. And in the foreground of all this action, life goes on – two senior Bengali men embrace, as Dan and his family arrive to join the march, while bystanders of different creeds and colours chat together.

Dan Jones’ mother was the artist Pearl Binder, who came to live in Whitechapel in the nineteen twenties, and since 1967, Dan has lived down in Cable St where he brought up his family in an old terraced house next to the Crown & Dolphin. A prolific painter, Dan has creating many panoramic works – often of political scenes, such as you see here, as well as smaller pictures produced to illustrate two books of Nursery Rhymes, “Inky, Pinky, Ponky” and “Mother Goose comes to Cable St,” both published in the eighties. In recent years, he has undertaken a series of large playground murals portraying school children and the infinite variety of their games and rhymes.

Employed at first in youth work in the Cable St area, and subsequently involved in social work with immigrant families, Dan has been a popular figure in the East End for many years, and his canvases are crammed with affectionate portraits of hundreds of the people that he has come to know through his work and political campaigning. Today Dan works for Amnesty International, and continues to paint and to pursue his lifelong passion for collecting rhymes.

There is a highly personal vision of the East End manifest in Dan Jones’ paintings, which captivate me with the quality of their intricate detail and tender observation. When Dan showed me his work, he pointed out the names of all the people portrayed and told me the story behind every picture. Like the Pipe & Drum Band in Wapping painted by Dan in 1974 – to give but one example – which had been going since the eighteen eighties using the same sheet music. Their performances were a living fossil of the music of those days, until a row closed them down in 1980. “They were good – good flute players and renowned as boxers,” Dan informed me respectfully.

The End of Club Row, 1983. The animal market held in Sclater St and Club Row was closed after protests by Animal Rights’ Campaigners.

Last Supper at St Botolph’s, Aldgate. Rev Malcolm Johnson preaches to the homeless at Easter 1982.

Pipe and Drum Band in Tent St, Wapping, 1974.

The Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921

Parade on the the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Cable St, 1996

Live poultry sold in Hessel St.

Fishing at Limehouse Basin.

Tubby Isaacs in Goulston St, Petticoat Lane.

Palaseum Cinema in Commercial Rd

A Teddy Bear rampages outside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Funeral of a pig in Cable St, Dan Jones and his family come out of their house to watch.

Christ Church School, Brick Lane

Liverpool St Station

Watney Market

Paintings copyright © Dan Jones

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39 days ago
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