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September 29, 2020
[london] A Jack the Ripper mural – are you serious? How the Eastenders hit back … A look at why a Jack the Ripper mural got painted over in Whitechapel. ‘The Duke of Wellington had offered the wall as a “blank canvas” for Zabou – a French-born, London-based street artist – and her spray cans. It’s just a few metres away from a barber called Jack the Clipper, and not too much of a distance from Jack the Chipper. Pre-Covid, there were constant Jack the Ripper tours here, with large groups traipsing round pavements led by theatrical guides acting out the gory details of the murders, stopping at sites where the mutilated bodies of the women were found, at pubs where they drank, flop-houses where they stayed when they could afford it. There’s even a Jack the Ripper museum, which opened in spite of much local protest.’
September 9, 2020
[computers] The 20 greatest home computers – ranked! … Ancient 1980s schoolyard arguments revived for 2020. ‘The people’s choice, the gaming platform of the everyman, Sinclair’s 48K Spectrum, with its rubber keys, strange clashing visuals and tinny sound was absolutely pivotal in the development of the British games industry. From Jet Set Willy and Horace Goes Skiing to Knight Lore and Lords of Midnight it drew the absolute best from coders, many of whom would go on to found the country’s biggest studios.’
September 7, 2020
[comics] “This Was Cultural Genocide”: An Interview With Joe Sacco … Sacco is interviewed about his new book. ‘It’s also a question of what can a comic book do? How far can you push the reader into a very complicated issue. I’m always reading books that are very complex. Just as we all do. As a reader when you’re reading prose you expect a lot from yourself, I think. They have a lot of moving parts. In comics the advantage I think is that you have all these moving parts and illustrations can cement things in a readers head better. I tried to push things as far as complexity goes. Land claims are complex. You have the government of Canada, the government of the Northwest Territories, and then you have the different Dene groups each with its own agenda. You have the complexities within communities, the strains within communities over claims. The tension between communities. It’s all very complex. You’ll have to tell me if I pulled it off. It depends on the readers patience. I guess I’m expecting readers to be patient.’
August 10, 2020
[mp3] ‘You’ve been smoking too much!’: the chaos of Tony Wilson’s digital music revolution … How Tony Wilson foresaw the digital music business in 1998. ‘Arriving in summer 2000, music33 developed a barmy way of protecting clients’ tracks. Songs purchased came in a PDF; users tapped in a password to play the music. “I’m still trying to understand it even now,” Clarke chuckles. Pre-broadband dial-up internet was so slow that “you’d plug in a modem to download one track, which could take 15 minutes,” says Clarke. Music33 featured a little robot avatar named Howie, who explained how to use the site. Wilson’s plan to get Keith Allen to do its voice never came off.’
June 18, 2020
[chernobyl] The Age of Forever Crises … This analysis of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl seems somehow relevant during Covid-19. ‘Chernobyl, in this sense, is a crisis that has never stopped unfolding, or as Brown puts it, it is a calamity “with no perceptible end.” It is just as much an environmental disaster as a crisis of information; Cold War politics prevented the free exchange of scientific knowledge, making a bad situation infinitely worse. Brown explains how, in 1986, Russian scientists asked UN officials for “precise information” about how the “Life Span Study” of Japanese survivors of the nuclear bomb was carried out; they were instead presented with data about a chemical explosion in Italy.’
June 5, 2020
[books] H.P Lovecraft on 1918’s pandemic – Spanish Flu … Some interesting snippets on Lovecraft’s view on the big pandemic of his time. ‘H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 2 December 1925 – Influenza has not yet struck the east this winter, though it probably will before long. With freely accessible railways, one can’t segregate maladies of this sort nowadays. It’s odd, but despite all the repeated epidemics of the past decade, I’ve never had influenza. No doubt the gods are saving a deal of picturesque suffering for my very last days!’
May 27, 2020
[politics] Rasputin Goes To Barnard Castle … Comparing Dominic Cummings and Rasputin. ‘Both Cummings and Rasputin are weird finger sniffing outcasts who turned up in the middle of an outdated corrupt regime and made the elite feel better about themselves while completely taking the piss and not giving even the slightest of fucks about the uproar they caused. Rasputin wandered about the palace wearing ill-fitting stinking old rags telling everyone to fuck off, so does Cummings. Rasputin had a massive cock, Cummings is a massive cock.’
March 2, 2020
[death] 17th Century Death Roulette ☠️ … How would you have died in the 17th Century? ‘In the week of September 12th, 1665 you died from Canker.’
February 18, 2020
[weird] The Russian Conspiracy Theory That Won’t Die … Interesting summary of the Dyatlov Pass incident. ‘The group began moving toward the slope of Peak 1079, known among the region’s indigenous people as “Dead Mountain.” A photograph showed the lead skiers disappearing into sheets of whipping snow as the weather worsened. Later that night, the nine experienced trekkers burst out of their tent half-dressed and fled to their deaths in a blizzard. Some of their corpses were found with broken bones; one was missing her tongue. For decades, few people beyond the group’s friends and family were aware of the event. It only became known to the wider public in 1990, when a retired official’s account ignited a curiosity that soon metastasized.’
December 3, 2019
[history] Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’‘A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.’
October 11, 2019
[unix] Ken Thompson’s Unix password … Cracking passwords from late 1970s. ‘However, kens password eluded my cracking endeavor. Even an exhaustive search over all lower-case letters and digits took several days (back in 2014) and yielded no result. Since the algorithm was developed by Ken Thompson and Robert Morris, I wondered what’s up there. I also realized, that, compared to other password hashing schemes (such as NTLM), crypt(3) turns out to be quite a bit slower to crack (and perhaps was also less optimized).Did he really use uppercase letters or even special chars? (A 7-bit exhaustive search would still take over 2 years on a modern GPU.)’
October 10, 2019
[drinks] How Fanta Was Created for Nazi Germany … The wartime origin of the soft drink Fanta. ‘The drink was technically fruit-flavored, but limited wartime resources made that descriptor not wholly accurate. Its ingredients were less than appetizing: leftover apple fibers, mash from cider presses, and whey, a cheese by-product. “[Fanta] was made from the leftovers of the leftovers,” says Mark Pendergrast, who, as the author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, revealed this hidden past.’
September 27, 2019
[games] The mysterious origins of an uncrackable video game … The BBC looks at video game archaeology and in particular an Atari 2600 Game called Entombed. ‘During their research, Aycock and Copplestone were able to interview one of the people involved in [Entombed’s] production, Steve Sidley. He too remembered being confused by the table at the time. “I couldn’t unscramble it,” he told the researchers. And he claimed it had been the work of a programmer who developed it while not entirely sober: “He told me it came upon him when he was drunk and whacked out of his brain.” Aycock tried to contact the programmer in question but got no response. Maybe no-one ever really understood the logic of the algorithm. But there it is, in a 1982 Atari game, posing a seemingly unanswerable question.’
September 11, 2019
[cia] From mind control to murder? How a deadly fall revealed the CIA’s darkest secrets … A long read on the death of Frank Olson. ‘As the family were rising to leave, Gottlieb pulled Eric aside. “You are obviously very troubled by your father’s suicide,” he said. “Have you ever considered getting into a therapy group for people whose parents have committed suicide?” Eric did not follow that suggestion, but it left a deep impression on him. For years, he had been confused and depressed by the story of his father’s death. Only after meeting Gottlieb, however, did he resolve to bring his search for truth to the centre of his life. “I didn’t have the confidence then in my scepticism to ignore his ploys, but when he made that therapy group suggestion – that was the moment when he overplayed his hand,” he said. “At that moment, I understood how much Gottlieb had a stake in defusing me. And it was also at that moment that the determination to show that he had played a role in murdering my father was born.” Eric Olson waited another decade – until after his mother died – before taking his next step: arranging to exhume his father’s body.’
June 21, 2019
[distractions] How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks‘Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing. John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment – let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration. That was in the late 420s…’
June 17, 2019
[lost] What Lost Treasure Would You Most Like to Find?‘The original high-resolution recordings of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. The footage of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface is effectively a kinescope recording—made via a camera pointed at a video screen. NASA’s tapes of the original transmissions were likely erased and reused in the 1980s. Only a few people in July 1969 have ever seen the historic moonwalk in its full resolution.’
May 22, 2019
[people] It’s Still Roy Cohn’s World, And You’re Living in It … A great comic profile from Levi Hastings and Josh Trujillo.

Ray Cohn comic profile panel

August 1, 2018
[history] On the Hunt for the Lost Wonders of Medieval Britain … A modern search for the location of some lost wonders of Ancient Britain. ‘Standing on the 2,000-year-old stones of the Roman baths, however, and dipping a finger into the warm mineral water did transmit a touch of awe. But the experience of standing in Caerwent, looking out from the port wall to see the one-time path of the River Severn and finding the dips of the dried-up Whirlyholes, while not spectacular, had its own power. The wonders list can act as a decoder for the landscape, revealing secrets in a nondescript underpass, a featureless field, an ordinary intersection. These places might seem like they have no history, but once they were remarkable.’ [via As Above]
June 27, 2018
[tech] Confessions of a Disk Cracker: the secrets of 4am. … Interview with 4am – a modern software cracker cracking old programs. ‘Nobody got kudos for cracking “Irregular Spanish Verbs in the Future Tense,” no BBS would waste the hard drive space to host it, and no user would sacrifice their phone line to download it. So it never got preserved in any form. And even the things that did get cracked weren’t fully preserved. Those same technical constraints led to a culture where the smallest version of a game always won. That meant stripping out the animated boot sequence, the title screen, the multi-page introduction, the cut scenes, anything deemed “non-essential” to the pirates. The holy grail was cutting away so much that you could distribute the game (or what was left of it) as a single file that could be combined with other unrelated games on a single floppy disk.’
June 26, 2018
[rorschach] The Eye of the Beholder … A look at the history, art and theories behind Rorschach’s inkblots. ‘The science of the Rorschach, to the extent that one can refer to it as a science, is a science of artistic response as the key to personality.’
June 7, 2018
[tech] Y Combinator’s Xerox Alto: restoring the legendary 1970s GUI computer … Fascinating look into the complexities of restoring the first computer with a GUI and major inspiration for the Apple Macintosh. Here’s a page collecting information, blogposts and videos from YouTube on the project: Restoring a Xerox Alto II Extended.

The Alto was introduced in 1973. To understand this time in computer hardware, the primitive 4004 microprocessor had been introduced a couple years earlier. Practical microprocessors such as the 6502 and Z-80 were still a couple years in the future and the Apple II wouldn’t be released until 1977. At the time, minicomputers such as the Data General Nova and PDP-11 built processors out of hundreds of simple but fast TTL integrated circuits, rather than using slow, unreliable MOS chips. The Alto was built similarly, and is a minicomputer, not a microcomputer. The Alto has 13 circuit boards, crammed full of chips. Each board is a bit smaller than a page of paper, about 7-5/16″ by 10″, and holds roughly 100 chips (depending on the board).

June 5, 2018
[conspiracy] Looking for Life on a Flat Earth … A profile of the Flat Earth movement.

Flat-Earth logic is by turns mesmerizing and maddening. There is no gravity, nothing to restrain it, but as a theory it explains fewer phenomena than the theory it seeks to supplant. In the corridor, I met a documentary filmmaker—there were several milling around at the conference—who had been following the flat-Earth community for months. His face bore a look of despair. “If you’re going to dismiss everything as a hoax, you’d better have something clear to replace it,” he said, his voice rising toward apoplexy. “If you tell me your car isn’t blue and I ask you, ‘Well, what color is your car?,’ don’t fucking tell me, ‘I don’t know, but it’s not blue.’ What color is your fucking car?!”

May 30, 2018
[fiction] Why is pop culture obsessed with battles between good and evil? … A look at why the structure of stories has changed over time and the connection to Nationalism. ‘As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.’
May 10, 2018
[tech] Go Watch The First Pizza Ordered by Computer in 1974‘The first call went to Dominos, which hung up. They were apparently too busy becoming a behemoth. Mercifully, a humane pizzeria — Mr. Mike’s — took the call, and history was made.’

March 26, 2018
[weird] 16 Weird Things You Won’t Believe People Used To Believe, Believe Me‘Preformationism was another of Aristotle’s theories. He claimed that inside each human sperm was a tiny person, and inside that tiny person was more people-sperm (i.e, sperm = Russian dolls). What’s more, he believed this embryonic sperm was all that was needed to generate life: the woman was just the oven, and the resulting baby took 100% of its characteristics from the man. Cheers, Aristotle.’
January 29, 2018
[history] Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace … a fascinating deep-dive blog post on the life of Ada Lovelace from Stephen Wolfram. ‘When Ada wrote about Babbage’s machine, she wanted to explain what it did in the clearest way—and to do this she looked at the machine more abstractly, with the result that she ended up exploring and articulating something quite recognizable as the modern notion of universal computation. What Ada did was lost for many years. But as the field of mathematical logic developed, the idea of universal computation arose again, most clearly in the work of Alan Turing in 1936. Then when electronic computers were built in the 1940s, it was realized they too exhibited universal computation, and the connection was made with Turing’s work.’
January 23, 2018
[lsd] A Fateful Hunt for a Buried Stash of the Greatest LSD Ever Made … a wonderful gonzo tale about the history behind a legendary lost stash of LSD – a gentle Breaking Bad set in Wales in the 1970s. ‘Over the years, Smiles hasn’t featured in any of the books or TV documentaries about Operation Julie, so I assumed he didn’t want to speak about those years any more. But I knew he was still around: I’d heard from a good source that he’d recently appeared at the funeral of one of the other men convicted in the 70s, and that he’d got everyone stoned in the smoking area of the wake. If anyone knew whether there was still some mythical LSD buried in the ground, it would be Smiles. In the end, finding him wasn’t too hard at all, and after a day of correspondence he invited us round for tea.’
December 5, 2017
[truecrime] The Bloody History of the True Crime Genre … Examining the origins of True Crime … ‘Reputable authors became increasingly interested in crime as a site of social, aesthetic, and scientific inquiry. Reform-minded writers like Charles Dickens (“A Visit to Newgate,” 1836) and William Thackeray (“Going to See a Man Hanged,” 1840) decried the institutional punishments of the era. Perhaps the most notorious essay was the satirically titled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” first published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1827 by the self-confessed opium-eater Thomas De Quincey. The essay was so well received it inspired a “Second Paper” in 1839 and a collected edition including a “Postscript” in 1854. Adopting the absurd persona of a member of the “Society of Connoisseurs in Murder,” De Quincey articulates his aesthetics of murder. He does not condone violence or make moral claims, but instead compares the effect of murder to Kant’s theory of the sublime…’
November 9, 2017
[mac] The Twiggy Mac Lives! The Quest To Resurrect The World’s Oldest Macintosh‘How did this Mac survive? Was this the only one? The owner of the mysterious machine, posting as “mactwiggy” and known publicly only as Jay, said at the time that he bought the system after seeing it advertised online. “The elderly gentleman I purchased it off of is a retired engraver,” Jay wrote on Applefritter’s forums. “The company he worked for was hired to make some award medallions for a ceremony at Apple. It would have been some point in 1983 I personally think, but he really couldn’t recall. They sent over this Mac to use as a model for him to work off of. When the job was done, they tried to make arrangements to send it back. Apparently after several attempts, Apple just told them to keep it.” The seller knew he had a highly collectible computer, but was willing to sell the piece at a less-than-maximum price to avoid dealing with potential buyers. “He was really just happy it was going to someone who knew what it was and would appreciate it,” Jay wrote. It was major find — truly a Mac collector’s dream.’
October 18, 2017
[wikipedia] 19 Wikipedia Pages That’ll Send You Into A Week-Long Wikihole … a great time wasting list … List of common misconceptions: ‘This list is basically what it says on the tin: a bunch of facts that you think you know but aren’t really facts at all. For example, I was upset to learn that Thomas Crapper (the guy in the above photo) didn’t actually invent the flushing toilet. He just made them more popular. Also, less surprisingly, Einstein didn’t really fail maths, and when he heard this claim he said “before I was 15 I had mastered differential and integral calculus.” No need to brag, Albert.’
September 18, 2017
[crime] What Crime Most Changed the Course of History? … Various people suggest a varied bunch of crimes … Josh Braun, executive producer, The Keepers: ‘The Manson-family murders were one of the first crimes that became a celebrity spectacle. They also changed people’s day-to-day perception of how safe they were at home: Suddenly the bogeyman was real.’
September 13, 2017
[tech] Atomic City … The story behind the only recorded nuclear fatalities in the US (reads like a James Ellroy story) … ‘McKinley was struck in the head by a piece of radioactive shrapnel that tore off half his face. Byrnes was thrown into concrete blocks, breaking ribs that pierced his heart. Legg was skewered in the gut by a flying control rod that launched him thirteen feet in the air and pinned him to the ceiling. (It took a week to get him down, requiring a pole with a hook to push him into a net attached to a crane operated by a man shielded in lead.) The men’s bodies were wrapped in several hundred pounds of lead, placed in steel coffins, and buried under a foot of concrete.’
June 12, 2017
[conspiracy] The Other Shooter: The Saddest and Most Expensive 26 Seconds of Amateur Film Ever Made … another look at the Zapruder Film

All the newest technologies have been thrown at Zapruder. The limitation, ultimately, isn’t the resolution of the 8mm film stock, but the quality of the lens. A rash of theories about JFK continue to revolve around the film, which, despite being such a landmark testament to what happened, hasn’t brought questions about the assassination to rest. “It’s one of the great ironies that, despite the existence of the film, we don’t know what happened,” says Begley.

“We’re still in the dark. What we finally have are patches and shadows. It’s still a mystery. There’s still an element of dream-terror. And one of the terrible dreams is that our most photogenic president is murdered on film. But there’s something inevitable about the Zapruder film. It had to happen this way. The moment belongs to the twentieth century, which means it had to be captured on film.”

January 16, 2017
[shipwrecks] The Last Great Arctic Shipwreck … a look at the history behind the wrecks of HMS Erebus and Terror whose wrecks have recently been found in the Arctic … ‘When it was John Franklin’s turn to etch his name in this roster of arctic disaster he was no noob: a previous harrowing expedition in search of the Passage had earned him the oddly specific nickname “the man who ate his boots.” But the style of expedition Franklin came to represent—what modern British explorer Benedict Allen has described as “the siege, where you took your world with you and set about defeating the place”—was one of the last of its kind. Like the many doomed voyages that came before, Franklin’s ships quickly encountered what British explorer James Clark Ross described as the unforgiving solidity of ice, “not less solid than if it were a land of granite … meetings as mountains in motion would meet, with the noise of thunder.”’
December 28, 2016
[space] The Wold Newton Meteorite … the history behind a meteorite that crashed into Yorkshire in 1759 and later fell into fiction … ‘In addition to almost killing a farm labourer and kickstarting the modern scientific study of meteorites, the “EXTRAORDINARY STONE” which fell to Earth two centuries ago was also the catalyst for some of the most inventive and influential crossover fiction of the twentieth century. If you’re are a fan of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or even Bryan Talbot’s Grandville, or Showtime’s Penny Dreadful then you have the Wold Newton Meteorite to thank. All these worlds filled with characters from different novels, films, and TV series owe a huge debt (acknowledged by both Newman and Moore, I might add) to the writing of Philip Jose Farmer…’
December 7, 2016
[mystery] The Unsolvable Mysteries of the Voynich Manuscript … decoding the hidden meaning of a famous coded medieval manuscript‘Readers will probably never stop forming communities based on the manuscript’s secrets. Humans are fond of weaving narratives like doilies around gaping holes, so that the holes won’t scare them. And objects from premodern history—like medieval manuscripts—are the perfect canvas on which to project our worries about the difficult and the frightening and the arcane, because these objects come from a time outside culture as we conceive of it. This single, original manuscript encourages us to sit with the concept of truth and to remember that there are ineluctable mysteries at the bottom of things whose meanings we will never know.’
November 29, 2016
[tech] Secrets of the Little Blue Box … the text of Ron Rosenbaum’s fascinating 1971 article from Esquire magazine of his investigation into early phone phreaking … ‘People like Gilbertson and Alexander Graham Bell are always talking about ripping off the phone company and screwing Ma Bell. But if they were shown a single button and told that by pushing it they could turn the entire circuitry of A.T.&T. into molten puddles, they probably wouldn’t push it. The disgruntled-inventor phone phreak needs the phone system the way the lapsed Catholic needs the Church, the way Satan needs a God, the way The Midnight Skulker needed, more than anything else, response.’
October 28, 2016
[books] In ‘Hitler,’ an Ascent From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue … Nicely done book review on the rise of Donald Trump Adolf Hitler … ‘Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of “Mein Kampf” described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”’
September 27, 2016
[ww2] High Hitler: How Nazi Drug Abuse Steered the Course of History … an interesting examination of Adolf Hitler’s drug addictions …

For Hitler, though, a crisis was coming. When the factories where Pervitin and Eukodal were made were bombed by the allies, supplies of his favourite drugs began to run out, and by February 1945 he was suffering withdrawal. Bowed and drooling and stabbing at his skin with a pair of golden tweezers, he cut a pitiful sight. “Everyone describes the bad health of Hitler in those final days [in the Führerbunker in Berlin],” says Ohler. “But there’s no clear explanation for it. It has been suggested that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. To me, though, it’s pretty clear that it was partly withdrawal.” He grins. “Yeah, it must have been pretty awful. He’s losing a world war, and he’s coming off drugs.”

August 19, 2016
[history] Interview with Joseph Goebbels’ 105-year-old secretary‘But really, I didn’t do anything other than type in Goebbels’ office.’
May 25, 2016
[food] 24 Absolutely Horrendous Vintage Recipes‘HAM IN ASPIC’

Ham in Aspic

April 20, 2016
[tv] Teletext time travel … a fascinating look at how lost Teletext pages are being recovered from VHS tapes … ‘The pages are a snapshot of life in the 1980s – British Rail train times, Mrs Thatcher’s opinions, new pound coins and Gus Honeybun – and therefore fascinating for historians of modern life…’

Recovered Teletext Page

April 14, 2016
[tech] How the Ballpoint Pen Changed Handwriting … An interesting look at the history of the ballpoint pen and it’s role in the decline of cursive handwriting … ‘My fountain pen is a modern one, and probably not a great representation of the typical pens of the 1940s—but it still has some of the troubles that plagued the fountain pens and quills of old. I have to be careful where I rest my hand on the paper, or risk smudging my last still-wet line into an illegible blur. And since the thin ink flows more quickly, I have to refill the pen frequently. The ballpoint solved these problems, giving writers a long-lasting pen and a smudge-free paper for the low cost of some extra hand pressure.’
March 1, 2016
[gaming] The man who made ‘the worst video game in history’ … How Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was made… ‘Warshaw’s stock was high at Atari. The 24-year-old had just finished the video game of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg considered Warshaw a “certifiable genius” and 36 hours earlier Warshaw had been hand-picked for their next collaboration. “It was a day that will live in infamy in my life forever,” says Warshaw. “I was sitting in my office and I get a call from the Atari CEO. He said, ‘Howard, we need the ET video game done. Can you do it?’ “And I said, ‘Absolutely, yes I can!'” Games for the Atari 2600 were distributed on cartridges that took weeks to manufacture. If ET was to be in the shops for Christmas, Warshaw had a tight deadline…’
February 12, 2016
[books] Promised You a Miracle: UK 80-82 by Andy Beckett review – how today’s Britain was born in the early 80s … some interesting thoughts on how lucky Margaret Thatcher was in the early 1980s … ‘The readying and departure of the taskforce became in Beckett’s words “an epic, brilliantly manipulative piece of public theatre … that would run, to credulous rave reviews in most of the British media, for the rest of the Falklands conflict, and indeed [for more than a year] right up to the next general election”. Those scenes and the victory that followed did wonders for a prime minister who only a few months before had registered lower approval ratings than any of her predecessors; who, according to John Hoskyns, the head of her policy unit, could be found in the summer of 1981 sitting on a seat at the end of her garden thinking: “It’s all gone wrong. I don’t think it will ever come right. I’m the most unpopular prime minister ever. I will go down as a total disaster.” A year later, even as the taskforce was still heaving and wallowing its way homeward, the Tories were suddenly leading Labour by 20% in the polls and Thatcher was chastising “the waverers and the faint hearts … who thought we could no longer do the great things which we once did”, and announcing that Britain had “found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back”. In the election the following year, the Tories won their biggest victory since Harold Macmillan’s in 1959.’
February 11, 2016
[codes] They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code, and Found a Secret Society Inside … fascinating story of how the code of a long-forgotten secret society was cracked … ‘There were at least 10 identifiable character clusters that repeated throughout the document. The only way groups of letters would look and act largely the same was if this was a genuine cipher—one he could break. “This is not a hoax; this is not random. I can solve this one,” he told himself. A particular cluster caught his eye: the cipher’s unaccented Roman letters used by English, Spanish, and other European languages. Knight did a separate frequency analysis to see which of those letters appeared most often. The results were typical for a Western language. It suggested that this document might be the most basic of ciphers, in which one letter is swapped for another—a kid’s decoder ring, basically. Maybe, Knight thought, the real code was in the Roman alphabet, and all the funny astronomical signs and accented letters were there just to throw the reader off the scent. Of course, a substitution cipher was only simple if you knew what language it was in.’
January 13, 2016
[tech] Why Activists Wanted to Destroy Early GPS Satellites … fascinating story about an axe attack on an unlaunched GPS satellite in the 1990s and the motivations behind it … ‘GPS’ major media debut took place on the battlefield during the 1991 Gulf War, where GPS-guided cruise missiles took out Iraqi infrastructure and soldiers carried commercial GPS receivers (the system was still incomplete in 1991, and as a result all GPS operations during the Gulf War had to be coordinated within specific time windows to be sure there were enough satellites overhead). When explaining the Gulf War’s influence on the Brigade, Lumsdaine noted that “most of the civilian casualties of Operation Desert Storm came after the war because the infrastructure was targeted; the water, the electric lines, the generating stations. GPS was critical for taking out the electric grid of Iraq… with the electricity came repercussions with water filtration plans and so forth.” Crippling infrastructure is a long-term attack strategy, and GPS let the military enact it with ruthless precision.’
December 15, 2015
[whatif] The Ethics of Killing Baby Hitler … the reasons why a time-traveller shouldn’t kill Baby Hitler …

These questions should inspire two feelings. The first is humility. We can never know what a universe without Hitler would have looked like. But the implicit argument that his removal would improve history must also consider that his removal could make it worse. Indeed, recent experience should make us doubt our abilities to bend the course of human events towards our will. The Bush administration naively claimed that toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 would produce a vibrant liberal democracy in the largely illiberal Middle East. Instead it brought about regional instability, ethnic cleansing, civil war, and ISIS.

The second is relief. We live in cynical times, which masks the fact that we live in extraordinary times. Atrocities still occur, but human rights are now a normative value throughout most of the world, even if their enforcement is imperfect. Conflicts are still fought, but the great powers have avoided another world war for seven decades. Racism and anti-Semitism still exist, but pre-war forms of colonialism and pogroms have largely disappeared. This is not the future for which Nazi Germany fought and fell. Removing Hitler from history would gamble with one irrefutable truth: He lost.

November 29, 2015
[war] Behind the Design of the Doomsday Clock … the story behind one of the most memorable information designs of the last century … ‘Langsdorf and his fellow scientists began circulating a mimeographed newsletter called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In June 1947, the newsletter became a magazine. Langsdorf’s wife, Martyl, was an artist whose landscapes were exhibited in Chicago galleries. She volunteered to create the first cover. There wasn’t much room for an illustration, and the budget permitted only two colors. But she found a solution. The Doomsday Clock was born.’
November 12, 2015
[tech] The Room Where the Internet Was Born … A visit to the place where the first messages over the internet were sent from … ‘In a strikingly accurate replica of the original IMP log (crafted by UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History) on one of the room’s period desks is a note taken at 10:30 p.m., 29 October, 1969—“talked to SRI, host to host.” In the note, there is no sense of wonder at this event—which marks the first message sent across the ARPANET, and the primary reason the room is now deemed hallowed ground.’