Thursday, August 18, 2011

Declassifying ancient history

Here's a bizarre story.  The National Security Agency just declassified a text on cryptology.  All well and good, and glad to see government information becoming more free, etc. 

Only this text is 200 years old has been in the public domain (and available) for a long time. Actually what was declassified (and there is argument over whether it was ever actually classified) is a 40 page abstract that was captured in Germany.  The full 500-page text has been on the web for years. Upward and onward with freedom of information.

Tip of the tail to Secrecy News.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Just Another Day in Bellingham WA, 7

Okay, technically this was a day in Deming, but the Subdued Stringband Jamboree is Bellingham's beloved hometown folk festival.  We started going in the early years when it was so small it hardly seemed like it could survive.  I reemmber one year there was a wedding going on in a different part of the Deming Log Show Grounds and there was plenty off room for both events.  No way that would be true now.  In it's eleventh year the Jamboree has spread out magnificently, taking over the place with hundreds of tents owned by eager camper/jammers.  As an old codger and lifelong folkie I just love seeing so many thirty-somethings there with their kids.  Makes one feel like the future has a chance somehow.

I don't know if the focus is so local because the festival doesn't have the money to fly in a lot of people from around the world (like, say, the Vancouver Folk Festival) or because Robert Sarazin Blake, who dreamed this thing up, wants it this way, but it works beautifully.  Sure, there are a few performers listed in the program as being from New York, Texan, Portland, but most are proudly declared to be from: Sehome, Fairhaven, Lettered Streets, and other Bellingham neighborhoods.

Some of my favorite performers this year: the Gallus Brothers (of course), the Shadies, Kit Nelson, Giants Causeway, Mike and Makos Marker, Laurel Bliss and Cliff Perry, and Bent Grass.  (I hope someone recorded Bent Grass's hilarious song about Whatcom County.)

May the jamboree keep subduing us for many years to come..

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hooray for Joseph Priestley

Something we never think about: all the little standard things we do were invented by somebody.  I'm not talking about the invention of the printing press.  I'm talking about somebody inventing the shoelace.  Who was the first person who drew an arrow and meant not "this is an arrow" but "go this direction?"  Somebody dreamed that up, but we will never know who.

But we do know about Joseph Priestley.

I am reading Cartographies of Time, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, about the centuries-long struggle to describe the passage of time visually.  The book is full of illustrations of time as a tree, a circle, a human body, etc. and one is more complicated and confusing than the next.

But in 1765 scientist Joseph Priestley created a variation of what you see above, and called it A Chart of Biography, and suddenly the obscure became clear.  Although the detail is too small to read any modern reader understands what he is showing us.  This is a timeline, with the past on the left, the present on the right and each line marks off a time period, in this case, the lifetimes of great men.  At a glance you can see who were contemporaries, who were in a position to influence each other, etc.  Brilliant.

But you might argue that it only looks intuitive to us because we are used to it.  Not so; the readers in the 1760s immediately understood it and started borrowing, stealing adapting, building from Priestley's invention.

Here's how good an idea this was: twenty-one years later William Playfair published his Commercial and Political Atlas in which he added another dimension to Priestley's work - quite literally.  He tacked on the y-axis, and created line graphs and bar charts. 

Pretty cool.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Bill Morrissey is gone

Another great singer/songwriter gone.  Died last week of heart failure.  I can't find a video of my favorite of his songs, "The Last Day of the Last Furlough," so here is him singing his great song "Robert Johnson" in the movie Hellhound on my Trail.